Jerry Kopel

King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech echoes in Obama’s words during DNC

The acceptance speech by Barack Obama was like closing a circle that began with the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both were magnificent speeches, and the Obama speech was built upon the words of Dr. King.

Both men had choices to make.

Twenty-one years ago, in 1987, the Legislature was in session during the parade festivities on the state’s second Martin Luther King holiday celebration. That doesn’t happen today. All three black members of the House, Wilma Webb, Gloria Tanner and Sam Williams took part in the King holiday march, and were excused. Tanner asked me to provide the remarks at the mic on the eulogy for Dr. King before the Colorado House.

The night before the address, I still was not certain what I was going to say.

I woke up in the middle of the night, and it suddenly came to me. I got up, wrote down my comments and — without making any changes — delivered these words the following morning on the floor of the House:

“Today is a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. As on most holidays, the Legislature is in session and, traditionally, we spend a few moments in contemplation.

I don’t want to review the chronology of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Most of us know it. I would rather consider the choice that he made.

He had found his profession as a minister. He had a lovely wife. His future was secure. All he had to do was play it safe. But he didn’t.

Instead, he chose to take on a task that appeared so hopeless and against such overwhelming odds. Some might call it divine inspiration. I prefer to think it was his psyche ... that part that makes each of us unique.

Did he have fear? Of course he did. He was not a stupid man. The last recorded lynching in the United States had occurred in 1952. But to be a black man who could be placed in a jail in Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi in those years was to be a man in danger of dying.

So he made a choice — to give up his security, to place himself in danger — because he could not do otherwise. He overcame his fears, and in the process he helped others overcome their fears.

He was not the first to do so, nor will he be the last.

During the Korean War, many of our American boys were captured by the Chinese. Most stayed loyal to their country, to their ideals, despite their fears, their lack of adequate food and clothing. A few chose to collaborate, to accept a few benefits in return for selling out their fellow Americans.

Security vs. danger. There is a choice.

What is the message I got from the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.?

We only come this way once. And there has to be some driving force that impels us on, other than the accumulation of personal wealth or personal comforts.

We have to be true to ourselves, loyal to our ideals, understand why we have been given life, ready to accept our fears and strong enough to overcome them.

If we can do this, we can honor the Martin Luther King Jr. that exists in each of us.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.