As we have written in several recent blog posts, pessimism creates problems that make it difficult, if not impossible, to live life to the fullest every moment of every day. In contrast, optimism offers the promise that we can live life to its fullest potential. First, optimism offers the promise of hope and new beginnings in each and every moment. Its second promise is hard work, risk taking, and self-sacrifice. The third promise is more blessings than can be imagined.
Two of the most famous speeches of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly demonstrate these three promises and their interconnection. In 1963, King gave his "I have a Dream" speech to over 300,000 individuals who had come to participate in the "March on Washington" for the freedom and equality of African Americans (referred to as Negroes then by American Society and King, himself). On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, he gave the, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s Promise of Hope and New Beginnings
In 1963, discrimination against black Americans was rampant as was segregation. In many parts of the country, blacks did not have the right to vote, did not go to school with white children, could not drink out of the same water fountain, use the same rest room, or stay in the same hotel. There was no equality between blacks and whites in the workplace, school, or college.
King said: “Nineteen-sixty- three is not an end, but a beginning.” He spoke of his dream for equality of all men, elimination of bigotry and injustice, black and white to sit together and to hold hands, judgment based on character, not skin color.
King’s Promise of Hard Work, Risk Taking and Self-Sacrifice
In April of 1968, upon the eve of his assassination King described the effort, struggle and overcoming during the five years since the summer of 1963 with these words:
- We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces . . . in Birmingham, Alabama we were in that majestic struggle . . . Bull Connor would tell them to send in the dogs . . . but we went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.”
- Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” . . . there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out . . . we went before the fire hoses; we had known water . . . Baptist . . . had been immersed . . . Methodists . . . others . . . had been sprinkled, but we knew water.
- . . . couldn’t stop us . . . went on before the dogs . . . would look at them . . . go on before the water hoses . . . look at it . . . singing . . . “Over my head I see freedom in the air” . . . “We shall overcome.”
- . . . going into court tomorrow to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction . . . we aren’t going to let any injunction stop us. We are going on.
With these words, King showed that optimism is much more than hope. The promise of optimism is the promise born of the fruits of one’s labor.
King’s Promise of Abundant Blessings
In this same April 1968 speech, King shared his vision of a blessed future for African Americans when he likened the movement to freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and their ultimate entrance into the Promised Land. Like Moses, he was not sure if he would be there when they entered, but he assured the audience that he had been to the mountaintop, seen the promised land, and that whether or not he was with them they would get there. In that moment he talked of “being happy, not fearing any man,” because he had “seen the glory of the coming . . .”
King was right. The blessings for the African American in America have been abundant since his death. It took 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation to get to the “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington D.C. It took only five years to lead the nation to banks of the Promised Land, and it took fifty more for the nation to see discrimination once and for all symbolically and literally eliminated from American society with the election of an African American President.
A Bonus Fourth Promise of Optimism
Optimism’s fourth promise is that it is ongoing and eternal. Yes, we have essentially eliminated discrimination against blacks in America, but there are still pockets of bigotry and hatred not only toward blacks, but other minorities, religious groups, gays, lesbians and anyone else deemed different and therefore unacceptable. Thus, we must continue to fight for those less fortunate, oppressed and downtrodden with the sword of optimism as our only hope!