Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Fierce Urgency of Now

By Shawn Healy
Forty years ago today the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. died too young at the ripe age of 39. He represented hope for a nation long-scarred by a legacy of slavery and racial segregation. His tactics of civil disobedience and moral suasion proved more productive than the violent, separatist notions of black nationalism. From the Montgomery bus boycott where he first came to fame through the Memphis garbage strike where he met his untimely death 13 years later, King was a man who transcended race and used our founding freedoms as a means of forcing the nation he loved to live up to the true meaning of its creed.

We honor his legacy on this most important of days, and confess that our nation still too often divides itself along racial lines. The recent furor over the remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama's minister forced the candidate and the nation to look in the mirror at our country's original sin. Slavery was written into the Constitution through the legitimization of the slave trade. Enslaved African-Americans were counted as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of apportionment in the same document. The Supreme Court went so far in the Dred Scott case (1857) as to equate slaves with property, entirely devoid of any human rights. This house divided could not stand, and a Civil War that cost more than 600,000 American lives brought some resolution to the issue. The Constitution was amended to outlaw slavery, bestow civil rights upon former slaves, along with the right to vote.

The end of Reconstruction jeopardized each of these constitutional breakthroughs as Jim Crow took deep root in the South and de facto discrimination ruled in Northern ghettos. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), only 58 years later correcting the errors in its ways, deeming "separate facilities...inherently unequal" in Brown v. the Board of Education (1954). King would shape the aftermath of this decision like no other, forcing Americans to come to terms with its schizophrenic legacy of rights on paper meaning nothing in practice. In the end, Rosa Parks would have her seat at the front of the bus, Bull Connor's attack dogs and fire hoses would turn the populace against such mayhem in Birmingham, and King's "I Have a Dream Speech" would lead to passage of the long-awaited Civil Rights Act. His March to Selma in 1965 would clinch the second piece of the puzzle later in the same year, the Voting Rights Act.

King turned his attention next to poverty and found this issue tougher to conquer. He was played for a fool by our own Mayor Daley in Chicago, and wrestled with this very issue in April 1968 while stationed at the Loraine Hotel in Memphis. His work was unfinished then as it is now, but we are arguably further along forty years later on account of his legacy. A man of mixed heritage stands on the cusp of his party's presidential nomination, winning the support of millions across racial lines. African Americans hold prominent positions in the White House, on the U.S. Supreme Court and in the halls of Congress. Entrance to our nation's most prestigious colleges and universities is no longer a pipe dream, along with working in prominent positions at Fortune 500 firms and every other walk of life.

Still, the promise remains unfulfilled. The prominent presidential candidate must still address the fiery racial rhetoric of his minister and spiritual advisor. The electorate splits dramatically along racial lines, even amongst the progressive Democratic Party. A white majority still dominates professional America, and black graduation rates are exponentially lower than those of their white peers. A disproportionate number of black youth are housed in our nation's jails and prisons, and unemployment levels are more than twice that of the white population. Out-of-wedlock births continue to jeopardize an already fragile social structure. King's expectation that we can do better resonates more than ever.

Sen. Obama is apt to quote King and the "fierce urgency of now." At this time, at this hour, on this most historic of days, the time to heal old wounds and address the matters that divide us couldn't be more pressing. We honor King by having a national conversation about race, the mediocre at best status quo, and a common future. We are all Americans, and must force our leaders and country to once and for all transcend race. This is a cause greater than Sen. Obama or any individual for that matter. On the 40th anniversary of his death, King reminds us that the very ideals of this nation are at stake.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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