Forty seven years ago in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King made the I Have a Dream speech, a speech which I now know was heard all over the world. I have been learning about this speech since I can remember going to school. It was always meaningful, but I was never able to grasp the full effect of what he was saying because I’ve always gone to integrated schools with kids of all races and ethnicities. Though I felt that here on Martha’s Vineyard, I was treated fairly and that the Vineyard in many ways resembled Dr. King’s dream, I am aware that there was work to be done to achieve equality in America. After all, I knew that MLK had been assassinated. This past year, in November of 2009, I witnessed the results of all Dr. Martin Luther King’s hard work and sacrifice when the 44th president, Barack Obama was elected into office.
Even more than seeing momentous changes in Washington has been seeing changes closer to home. Over the past couple of years, I have been doing work for the Heritage Trail organization, and through that work I have experienced change in the African American community on the Island. For example, the late Capt. William A. Martin who was the first and only African American whaling captain on the Island, is buried in Chappaquiddick and for all of these years, his gravestone has been facing the opposite direction from the other stones, away from the sea and toward the woods. Just recently, it was turned around. We don’t know why it was turned around but the fact is that somebody felt uncomfortable with history and turned it around.
When I was a sophomore, I worked on a paper on the achievements of Sen. Edward Brooke, a man who achieved so many firsts in his life. He was the first African American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction and the first African American attorney general ever. I wondered about the stresses of being the first and having to test out new situations knowing that it was not just about you and your abilities, but about all people of color everywhere. Senator Brooke’s former home is a site on the Heritage Trail and much important work was done here on the Vineyard to advance the cause of equality.
Martin Luther King came here frequently during the summers and stayed at the Overton house in Oak Bluffs, another site on the trail that is dedicated to the memory of MLK. Sources say that this is where he got a good portion of his work done. Apparently he liked to sit on the deck of that amazing house and was always reading and writing, but every afternoon he broke off from his work and went to swim at Inkwell Beach.
Hearing about Dr. King actually being here on the Island and having stood on the porch where he sat and wrote his famous speeches made me realize that the message of Dr. King is closer to me than I had thought.
The Heritage Trail plaque on the Overton House in Oak Bluffs has an excerpt of Dr. King’s final speech where he reflected on the meaning of his life, and I am ending my speech today with a quote from that speech because it seems to describe where we are now. And though it’s not yet the promised land, I am standing before you as a young man whose life has, in many ways, been lived in the way that Dr. King dreamed about.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Troy Small is a senior at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He gave this speech at the annual NAACP Martin Luther King Brunch in Oak Bluffs on Monday this week.