Sunday, August 28, 1963 — Washington, DC
Fifty-nine years ago, in what was a defining moment in our history similar to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped up to the podium, taking his place as the sixteenth and final scheduled speaker, at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A massive crowd of 250, 000 travel-weary, wilting people of all races sat or stood in the hot summer sun, eager for his words and listening with rapt, undivided attention. With the event being broadcast nationally on television and radio, millions more listened to what was then believed to be the first “I have a dream” refrain. But my family and I had heard the speech, nearly verbatim, two months prior, at the Great March On Detroit where we had marched with Dr. King and members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and over 200,000 marching Detroiters down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall Convention Arena, the final destination of the march. As we had been told by my cousin, Elnora’s husband, Bernard Lee, who was Dr. King’s personal assistant and road manager, the Detroit march would be where they would “road test” the speech in advance of the Washington event.
But in both the Detroit speech and the one in Washington, Dr. King spoke of much more than “a dream” on that hot August summer afternoon. In memorable phrases laced with brilliantly constructed, visual metaphors, and borrowing portions of his opening from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. confronted America with self-evident truths about racial inequality and the suffering of the American Negro that had gone too long ignored. With his voice soaring with passion, and reaching deep inside for the Baptist preacher within him, he succinctly brought the founding fathers’ own words into modern society, stating: “…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.”
OPENING OF THE SPEECH:
MLK: “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 on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean, the Emancipation Proclamation.
This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of 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 one hundred 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.“
Many consider this speech to be his greatest, with specific reference to his searingly emotional declarations: “I have a dream that one day my four little children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin…”. and ”…Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.“ It has been named by more than one source one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. But what I was most impressed by in this powerful oratory was his “bad check” metaphor, as relating to economic justice. In likening the Negro’s plight to an unfulfilled promise, a “promissory note” written by the founding fathers and reneged on by their successors, he drove home his point dramatically and with stunning precision. Pausing deliberately and intermittently between carefully selected words and phrasing, visually taking the full measure of every person before him as well as millions of his listeners world-wide, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. solidified his well-earned reputation as one of the greatest orators in history, boldly declaring, as his thunderous words rang out magnificently over powerful speakers:
MLK: “…In a sense, we have come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness…It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds”.
MLK: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.”
President Kennedy, along with the rest of the nation, watches the event and King’s speech from the White House.
From left, Whitney Young, National Urban League; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; John Lewis, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, American Jewish Congress; Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, National Council of Churches; A. Philip Randolph; President Kennedy; AFL-CIO United Auto Workers vice president, Walter Reuther; Vice-President Lyndon Johnson , rear, and Roy Wilkins, NAACP.
Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson
During the months of planning for the march, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his SCLC traveled across the country with fundraising efforts. During a visit to Los Angeles, actor Paul Newman wrote the first donation check and was quickly joined by other supporters. In this photo by Harry Adams Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy are joined by actors, Anthony Franciosa, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, JoAnne Woodward, singer, Polly Bergen, and Sammy Davis Jr.
VIDEO/AUDIO of The Speech
“We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of “Now”. This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
Now is the time to make real the promise 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 a reality to all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of its colored citizens. This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.
There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the colored person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.”
We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.
You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have 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 out in 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 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 their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of inter-postion and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. 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 climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement 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 spiritual:
“Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”