King told the Cobo Hall crowd, “I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” Of course, those words would be repeated in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. two months later.
2013 marks 50 years since King’s speeches and 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. On May 1, we celebrated Law Day, and this year we focused on the country’s work toward achieving equality for all and reflect upon the work of Lincoln and King. Law Day was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 to celebrate our commitment to the Rule of Law. This year’s theme is “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All.” This must be a dream made real by each of us.
My father impressed upon me the importance of King’s statements. He especially took the words to heart because he had seen his Polish immigrant father and mother battle against the prejudice of being “foreigners” who couldn’t speak the language and had negative stereotypes attributed to them just because of their ethnicity. But, at the same time he impressed upon me how lucky his parents were that they were able to overcome this unequal treatment of an ethnic group largely because they did not face the tremendous obstacles of racial bigotry that were often found in Detroit. King’s words carried the hope and promise of breaking down those obstacles.
I did not really appreciate the message conveyed by him that day until four years later when Detroit erupted in violence during the riots. Even though many gave in to the fear and hatred that gripped the city, I personally witnessed several courageous individuals, even at that difficult time, voice unpopular opinions by standing up to, and speaking out against racism and all the injustice it perpetuates. I learned at that time that it is the responsibility of every American to exercise courage by renouncing discrimination wherever it is found because, as King also told the Cobo Hall crowd, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
As a lawyer, I have continuously witnessed the exercise of this same courage to stand up to discrimination, inequality and injustice. I am proud of our profession. Much of the responsibility to educate the public that the rule of law can only exist when there is truly equality before the law falls upon us. We need to embrace this responsibility. There is still a long road ahead, but we have traveled a long way thus far.
Mark A. Fogg is president of the Colorado Bar Association. He is general counsel for COPIC.