Joe Pisani (opinion): MLK can still remind us to dream

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

AP file photo

Every September I look out on a class of students with frightened faces, who are probably wondering, “How the heck did I get here?” and “How the heck can I get out of here?”

It’s not a class in organic chemistry, which is a good thing because I almost flunked chemistry. And it’s not a class in Latin because I almost flunked Latin too, and probably would have if it wasn’t for a Marist Brother who showed mercy. The class I teach is more terrifying: “Public Speaking.”

My students are about to embark on what to their thinking is a fate worse than death ... and they’re almost right because studies show people fear public speaking more than dying.

In fact, the National Social Anxiety Center says: “The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders or heights.” And the National Institute of Mental Health says 73 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety when they have to stand before a group of people and open their months to say something intelligent, or at least funny.

Fortunately, the college makes it a requirement because it’s a skill students will use in their professional lives and on some very meaningful occasions — giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding, praising your parents on their 25th (or 50th) anniversary, and standing before an audience of tearful people at a memorial service to recall the greatness of an ordinary woman or man you loved.

On the first day of class, I tell my students that some speeches have changed the course of history — Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” Nelson Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die,” and of course, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” which he delivered to 250,000 civil rights marchers in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

All of us have heard about Dr. King’s speech, but not enough of us have actually heard it.

Every year, when I play it in class, students are moved by his words of hope to a deeply divided nation almost 60 years ago. He challenged our country to live up to its promise of equality and justice for all, but his message wasn’t one of rage or vindictiveness. It began:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

He spoke of his dream: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and 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. I have a dream today.”

It’s a dream America still desperately needs.

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Today, the divisions in America seem insurmountable, and many say they can’t be overcome. The future of our country is clearly at stake. But where are the leaders like Martin Luther King who can unite us? Is anyone trying to bring us together, or are they trying to tear us apart in the pursuit of political self-aggrandizement?

When his speech finishes, students are so moved by his message, the silence is palpable. Most of them have never heard such a powerful call for change and unity. And if there’s something young people need today it’s hope and the dream of a better future. We haven’t given it to them.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was that all Americans would be free, and there would be a time “when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will live together” as brothers and sisters.

Sit and listen to his speech, ( ) and it might just rekindle your hope. Let it remind you of what this country was meant to be and what it can be.

Former Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time Editor Joe Pisani can be reached at