On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most powerful speeches in the nation's history while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. His "I Have a Dream" speech became the pivotal moment for the civil rights movement in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans of color.
Tonight, the Manatee County NAACP honors six community leaders and activists for their efforts in that continuing endeavor. The organization's branches across the country will also hold annual Freedom Fund and Awards Banquets, honoring the 50-year anniversary of that great moment.
King's "Dream" speech only lasted 18 minutes, but the words -- like President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation -- will last forever.
Over the course of the next week, the nation's capital will host commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington, culminating with President Obama's speech on Wednesday, the anniversary of King's historic stand.
As America's first black president, Obama evinces the success of the civil rights movement even as the country continues to struggle with racial equality.
The 250,000 people who heard King that day bore witness to what a survey of scholars cited as the top speech of the 20th century. But his written words did not even contain his most famous spoken ones, the eight sentences that began with "I have a dream ..."
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.' ...
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ..."
His inspirational message of the hope and promise established by the Founding Fathers resounds today in the work of organizations such as the NAACP of Manatee County.
Tonight's award recipients epitomize that goal as well. They are retired teacher Versia Pollard, Lifetime Achievement Award; community leader Rodney Jones, the Presidential Award; Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, Community Service Award; community activist Henry Blyden, Unsung Hero Award; Latino community activist Adriana Cerrillo, Unsung Heroine Award; and developer Pat Neal, Outstanding Business Person.
Manatee's NAACP was established more than 50 years ago, serving as one of the frontline forces in the desegregation of county schools in the early 1970s. Pollard, a graduate of the county's storied black Lincoln Memorial High School in Palmetto, taught here during the difficult period of desegregation.
How far has the country come since those turbulent times? A long way, but the finish line still looms in the distance. Manatee NAACP President Susie Copeland spoke well of the intractable hurdle remaining in Herald reporter Carl Mario Nudi's recent report on the awards:
"We really haven't progressed in terms of race relations. I don't think it's adequately addressed. We have laws that say this is the way we should act, but the laws haven't changed the hearts of many people."
The George Zimmerman's July acquittal in Trayvon Martin's shooting death, and the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision striking down a vital provision in the 1964 Voting Rights Act -- one of the hard-fought victories of the civil rights movement -- have been flashpoints in the national dialogue on racial issues.
In some respects, the dream has been realized. In others, the struggle continues. The six Manatee County community leaders who will be honored tonight have stood at the forefront of that fight. Our thanks and congratulations.