“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. 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. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Fifty years ago on today’s date, August 28 in 1963 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King delivered these words as the opening of his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. before @ 250,000 supporters as a part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The crowd contained a major cross-section of American society at the time. Ordinary working Americans of all races were present, rubbing elbows with the Civil Rights leadership, as well as Hollywood celebrities such as Tony Franciosa, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Harry Belefonte’ and Diahann Carroll. The speech, which called for an end to racism in America, the opening of freedom of opportunity for all races, and which invoked Dr. Kings hope that all races would live in peace and harmony has come to be regarded as the most important speech of the Civil Rights movement in America. And it is considered by many to be one of the most important speeches in American history.
The Goals of the March on Washington
The March on Washington had been meant as a show of massive public support for the civil rights legislation which had been formulated and proposed in June of that year by the administration of President John F. Kennedy. With this in mind as the primary goal of the March, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders had agreed to keep the rhetoric of their speeches calm, so as to avoid causing the civil disobedience demonstrations which had of necessity become so much a part of the civil rights movement in the past. In fact Dr. King had planned his speech primarily as an homage to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln whose Emancipation Proclamation was having its Centennial that year.
In fact, Clarence Benjamin Jones who had been helping Dr. King draft his remarks has said that “on the evening of August 27, Martin still did not know what he was going to say.” But Dr. King had been preaching about the dream of civil rights since the early 1960’s. The speech which had several drafts about there never being a return to the “normalcy” of past race relations acquired its emphasis on these long held dreams when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (above) shouted to Dr. King from the audience; “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Inspired by this, Dr. King departed from his prepared remarks and began preaching from the gospel of his heart, punctuating one remark after the other with the ringing phrase “I have a dream…” :
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends — 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 on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.”
The Speech, its Effect and its Legacy
And with his fiery style of delivery, Dr. King (who in my opinion was the most mesmerizing public speaker of my lifetime) transformed this speech into the definitive moment of the long struggle for civil rights in America. With his vision of racial harmony between former adversaries, equality of opportunity, and his emphasis on the responsibility of the individual (“the content of their character”) Dr. King delivered a masterpiece of oratory, not to mention a clear-as-a-bell statement of the hopes and aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement in America. African
Americans wanted only to share in the benefits of the American Dream, and Dr. King made as clear a statement as ever has been made that it was now time to honor what he called that “promissory note” of opportunity in America. The speech was very well received at the time. Washington political reporter James Reston said “Dr. King touched all the themes of the day, only better than anyone else. He was full of the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi, and the cadences of the Bible. He was both militant and sad, and he sent the crowd away feeling that the long journey had been worthwhile (“the crowd” is pictured above).” And the speech has been quoted time and time again in the years since. Jon Meacham, the Executive Editor of Random House Publishers has said that “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.“
The complete text of Dr. Kings speech can be found at:
A video of the speech in its entirety can be viewed at:
“Time” Magazine, August 26/September 2, 2013