"I am happy to join with you today," said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Baptist preacher and civil rights movement leader, "in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation" — the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With some 200,000 people marching — more than twice the number that organizers expected — and a cross-section of black and white, rich and poor, famous and unknown participants — Dr. King's words about the historical nature of the march proved to be true. But his "I Have a Dream" speech has become every bit as famous as the march he spoke.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Monument in the nation's capital, Dr. King invoked the Gettysburg Address, "Five score years ago …" He went on to recount not only the "momentous decree" of the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all people held as slaves would now be free, but also, in contrast, the "chains of discrimination" which left African Americans feeling like exiles in their own land. He used powerful biblical language and references to pivotal documents in American history such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, powerfully demonstrating how "America has defaulted on this promissory note" of true freedom.
But his "I have a dream" refrain most captured the minds and hearts of listeners. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out, "Tell ’em about the 'Dream,' Martin." Dr. King turned from his prepared text and spoke of his dreams: 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" and the desire to "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
In a soul-stirring finish, he told his listeners, "And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "
You can read the entire text of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech here. Within a year of the march, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in employment, hotels, and government jobs.
To Name This Day . . .
Listen to this video of excerpts from Dr. King's speech and commit to heart a phrase that stands out to you:
"What happened to the American Dream," write Tavis Smiley and Cornel West in The Rich and the Rest of Us, "the one we've heard about since kindergarten, the one we've read about and were indoctrinated to believe in — the ever-so-plausible happy ending that could be secured with nothing more than a little sweat and dogged determination? ... Our belief is in the validity of Martin Luther King's dream, which is a dialectical critique of the American Dream. King's dream affirmed the humanity of those overlooked and left out by those in power."
What did you learn about the American dream as a child? How has your perspective changed over the years? If you were to articulate your dream for America right now, what would you say?