“He was our Moses,” claimed a civil rights activist this morning. Today marks 50 years to the day since Martin Luther King, Jr made his immortal, “I have a dream” speech. Interestingly, he almost didn’t even speak those powerful, enduring words. According to the Today show this morning, he had a prepared, scripted speech that didn’t include that phrase, but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out to him, “Tell them about the dream.” He must have heard her, and extemporized, making for a moment in time that won’t be repeated.

While acknowledging how much work is left to be done, I am reminded of the Virginia Slims cigarette commercial, “We’ve come a long way baby.”

I like to think that I wouldn’t have been prejudiced in the 1960’s, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have used the “N” word, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t all nevertheless a product of our time. I imagine that I probably would have been the kind of person who didn’t look a black man in the eye, not fully seeing him as an equal. I would have walked around with my head down, looking at the ground. Rather than make a stand, I bet I wouldn’t have looked either blacks or whites in the eye, a sin by omission, taking the easy way out, and missing out on seeing the world in all its glory or difficulties. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have thought deeply or meaningfully about what it means to hold ingrained prejudices. I wouldn’t have considered dating a black person. Though I’m nearly certain I would have been polite, and it might even have bothered me to see whites on the main floor of a movie theater while blacks were relegated to the upper balcony, I wouldn’t have said anything or complained about the status quo. I would have accepted that these were just the way things are, and as a gay man, that makes me ashamed. I myself fight to be seen fully as a person of equal worth. It’s ironic that when something doesn’t affect you directly, you’re often hesitant to, as the proverbial saying goes, “put your oar in the water.” Without stretching the point too far (and perhaps this is reaching), I think of how the Holocaust happened in World War II when people near and far and institutions like the Catholic Church said nothing, never intervening to speak up and be heard.

Now we have a much different world. One point that hasn’t been discussed much is how the civil rights leaders were hounded, scrutinized, their homes and phones bugged, depicted as radical communists. Besides the FBI files on well known leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, lesser known African-Americans like Roy Wilkens, Dr. Robert Haley, Jesse Jackson Jr., and perhaps even Rosa Parks were all under surveillance, their every move monitored and documented. What we have with the Obama administration, however, smacks of the same sort of dangerous violation of civil rights. Recent stories abound with ordinary citizens being tracked and monitored; Big Brother is once again watching. Perhaps this problem has existed for some time and is only now coming to light. The point, however, is that we have made progress on so many fronts, and it’s time we make progress when it comes to the rights of ordinary citizens to live their lives without feeling paranoid that they are being watched, that they are not free to express their opinions and protest peacefully.

I am glad, though, that I can look my fellow man in the eye, and see others as equals, not as different.