But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: 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. 

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. 

We cannot walk alone. 

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. 

We cannot turn back.

Bill Burney, field officer director for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaks before groundbreaking on May 19, 2017, at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Bill Burney, Augusta’s former mayor and retired field office director for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said this section of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonated with him, particularly with the coalition that was represented “at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that coalition has many races, many faiths, all classes of Americans there.”

That is something Burney said he experienced growing up in Augusta around the time of King’s speech.

“My parents were very active in the NAACP and the movement itself. I can remember, and most recently I found some documents, where my parents had gone around to raise just a little bit of money to buy a newspaper ad fighting for the fair housing law in Maine,” he said. “When I looked through the list of names from all over central Maine — everybody gave just a dollar — it was that same sort of broad coalition.

“Personally, I can reflect on his acknowledgement of that coalition there that day that came forward to push for equal rights, equal housing, equal job opportunities — all things Dr. King mentions in his speech were alive here in Maine. I was able to witness some of that,” Burney added. “I think some of the tragedy of this is that (speech) was (given in) August, and in September, four little girls went to Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, and got blown up. It was less than a month after that speech. It draws attention to how intense the situation was in the ’60s.”

Even in these turbulent times, he does think the U.S. has the ability to find unity.

“I think we do have to come together as a country, obviously, and I think if we begin to physically build up our country — our infrastructure, provide jobs and education for people — that will be the soul force he (King) talked about,” Burney said. “In that case, he was talking about the resistance movement, but he also talks about a spirit people had and people can have that going forward.

“We need a common goal, which is to build up, I feel, the infrastructure of our country,” he added. “In that, we will find a togetherness, which we really need.”

Working together is something Burney has seen unite people. During segregation in the 1930s and 1940s, his father came from Georgia to Maine to work in the paper mill, bringing with him his brothers.

“In that common labor, that common enterprise, from that evolved a common respect,” Burney said. “And our country will be stronger when our roads and bridges are stronger, when our schools are stronger and rebuilt.

“All these common things America is well known for, I think will help us come together again by working side by side and not working side against side,” he added. “If we address and do some of these things — and it will take some time because we are generationally challenged in skilled trades, in education, in poverty and work ethic, so it may take a generation or two — it will be a worthwhile endeavor.”

— Rob Montana, Kennebec Journal

Related Headlines