(By Ellen Densmore, 1776 Student Scholar)

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice reality for all God’s children.

One hundred years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation, Martin Luther King, Jr. led black Americans in the charge for civil rights. In the 1860s, they were freed from the literal bondage of slavery. In the 1960s, they sought liberty and equality legally and culturally—they sought to secure those rights that were acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Even today, half a century later, this nation struggles to throw off the chains of racial injustice. In the 21st century, the United States of America—this blessed nation that we call our home—is anything but united. And all Americans are bound by these chains.

So-called “white-on-black” violence incites months of rioting and further tragedy; yet similar cases of “black-on-white” violence draw very little media coverage. The tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, made national headlines for weeks—even months—after the event occurred. Just two days later, on August 11, a young man of white and Hispanic heritage was shot and killed by a black police officer in Salt Lake City, Utah, but the story received minimal national attention. A similar case is the shooting of a white teenager by a black cop in St. Louis, Missouri, in October of 2012.

Today, seven years after America elected her first black President, racial tensions are rising; during the Obama Administration, this nation has seen its worst race-related riots since 1992.

“Racism” is misdefined, used to chastise those who refuse to remain politically correct, who acknowledge the differences in physical appearance between black Americans and white Americans—differences that are no more significant than the differences between tall and short Americans, or blond and brunette Americans.

“Ferguson” has become shorthand for the deep racial divisions that remain in America. Will we ever heal the festering wounds of so many decades of racial oppression?

Let me be very clear of two things. First, no man currently alive, whether white or black, may be held responsible for the atrocious crimes of our forebears. All we can do, from this day forward, is act rightly in our own time, not ignoring or discarding our history, but also refusing to let it negatively impact today. Second, we ought to seek justice without regard to the color of a man’s skin, but with regard only to his character made manifest by his words and actions.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged Americans to strive for justice, to “make real the promises of democracy.” But he also warned against many of the faulty paths that are now being trod:

“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Our dear Dr. King is physically absent from this earth, but his words, his passion, his vision, his dream live on.

We are all Americans. Our destinies, our liberties, our dreams are tied up together; we are dependent upon each other. It will take the wholehearted effort of each and every American in the next year, the next decade and, if all is well, the next century, to maintain our legacy of freedom.

I needn’t say any more. Dr. King’s words ought to swell the heart and bring a tear to the eye of every true American:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And 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 one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

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.”