It was toward the end of a sweltering August day and dozens of speeches that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “Dream” speech now engraved alongside the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence as markers of the nation’s conscience. The date was itself a grim anniversary: that of the kidnapping, torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 by Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, who were declared not guilty by an all-white jury in 67 minutes despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. When 250,000 people marched on Washington last Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the march, many had another slain black teenager on their mind: Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., as Martin was returning from a convenience store run for Skittles and iced tea, and after Zimmerman, finding the hoody-clad Martin suspicious, pursued him.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is not as well known as the fact that half of it was an improvisation. After noting that a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation blacks were “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” that the nation had “defaulted” on the promissory note of the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness due “her citizens of color,” and after warning against “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” Mahalia Jackson yelled out from speakers’ row: “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream’!”
And so he did.
“With his improvised riff, Dr. King took a leap into history, jumping from prose to poetry, from the podium to the pulpit,” writes The Times’s Michiko Kakutani. “His voice arced into an emotional crescendo as he turned from a sobering assessment of current social injustices to a radiant vision of hope — of what America could be.”
A scholar, a minister, a politician, a leader and showman, King drew on a tapestry of references–Scriptures, Negro spirituals, Shakespeare, the Declaration, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. DuBois, Woodie Guthrie, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”–as words transcended the moment into the sort of future-making history that would lead to what King could not have imagined 50 years ago: a black president.
“Dr. King’s speech was not only the heart and emotional cornerstone of the March on Washington, but also a testament to the transformative powers of one man and the magic of his words,” Kakutani writes. “Fifty years later, it is a speech that can still move people to tears. Fifty years later, its most famous lines are recited by schoolchildren and sampled by musicians. Fifty years later, the four words ‘I have a dream’ have become shorthand for Dr. King’s commitment to freedom, social justice and nonviolence, inspiring activists from Tiananmen Square to Soweto, Eastern Europe to the West Bank.”
In many ways some of the most important parts King’s message remain unfulfilled: the United States is still a nation riven by inequality , with poverty and race more often than not cleaving society in ways King would easily recognize despite immense progress as well.
Martin Luther King III, the human rights activist and King’s eldest son, writes to that effect in his commemoration of the 50th anniversary: “When an unarmed 17-year-old walking home with Skittles can be brutally slain by an armed man — a man who had been told by police to leave the boy alone — and that man is acquitted of all charges, something is very wrong. The so-called “stand your ground” and “stop-and-frisk” laws that have been enacted in various states in recent years disproportionately abuse people of color. These ill-considered laws are a serious threat to the freedom and safety of all Americans. The appalling racial injustice inherent in the Trayvon Martin tragedy reminds us that there is still much to do.” He goes on to note the “horrific gun violence” in Chicago and other cities that continues to shed the blood of innocents.
“Fulfilling my father’s dream will also require our society to become one where everyone who wants a job at a decent wage can get one. Reforms are needed to stem the tide of outsourcing good jobs to other nations and to educate and train American workers to meet the challenges of the 21st-century world economy,” the younger King writes. He concludes: “As I reflect back, I can’t help but ask, what would Dad think? One thing I am certain he would do is work relentlessly to get us all to work together to address today’s most pressing issues. As I look forward, I can’t help but ask, what is each and every one of us doing to realize the dream of freedom, justice and equality for all?”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963 as the culmination of the Washington Freedom Rally. Historian James MacGregor Burns described the scene in “Crosswinds of Freedom” (Knopf, 1989):
A quarter of a million people, black and white together, gathered in the summer heat at the Washington Monument and then surged forth to the Lincoln Memorial. They had come on buses and trains, many from the Deep South. Large contingents represented white religious faiths and, despite lack of backing by the AFL-CIO, many labor unions. Haunting freedom songs—”We Shall Overcome” sung by Joan Baez, “Oh, Freedom!” by Odetta—blended with speeches by the civil rights leadership. SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]’s John Lewis pierced the uplifting mood by denouncing the inadequacy of conventional liberalism and Kennedy’s legislative program to complete “the unfinished revolution of 1776.”
Around midafternoon Martin Luther King stood beneath the brooding face of Abraham Lincoln. Inspired by the sea of upturned black and white faces, he left his carefully crafted text and in rippling cadences and rich colors, he painted his vibrant dream of racial justice. Repeatedly invoking his phrase, “I have a dream,” responding to the people in rhythm with him, he implored that freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire, the mountains of New York and Pennsylvania, and even more, from Georgia’s Stone Mountain. “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From
every mountain top, let freedom ring. […]
A euphoric group of blacks, save for Coretta King, who to her distress was left to repair to her hotel room, met with the President following the rally. Having first opposed the march and then cooperated with it—to the point, some militants charged, of cooptation—Kennedy now shared in the moment of relief and triumph. He was “bubbling over with the success of the event,” [the NAACP’s Roy] Wilkins recalled. But out on the Mall some blacks remained skeptical and even cynical. Listening to King, young activist Anne Moody had told herself that back in Mississippi they had never had time to sleep, much less dream. An angry black man had shouted: “Fuck that dream, Martin. Now, goddamit, NOW!”
It was a luminous moment in a season of death and despair. The very evening of Kennedy’s June television address, NAACP leader Medgar Evers had been shot down as he returned to his home in Mississippi; later the President consoled the Evers family in the White House. By the end of the summer nearly 14,000 persons had been arrested in seventy-five cities in the South alone. Two weeks after the March, on a Sunday morning, a dynamite bomb exploded in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a center of the spring crusade, killing four black girls as they were donning their choir robes.
It would be another generation before the nation would finally consider establishing a national holiday in Martin Luther King’s name, though not easily. King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. His birthday is observed federally on the third Monday of January. The national holiday, was first observed on Jan. 20, 1986, after a long ratification battle in Congress.
The House of Representative approved the holiday bill on Aug. 2, 1983, by a vote of 338-90. Five of those No votes were cast by Florida congressmen, including Bill McCollum. Other Floridians voting against were Michael Bilirakis, Andy Ireland, Earl Hutto, and C. W. Bill Young. John McCain, then a member of the House, also voted against the bill. He later admitted to being wrong. Others voting against included Trent Lott, the Republican Senate Majority Leader during the George W. Bush administration, and Ron Paul, the Texas Republican.
The U.S. Senate finally approved the bill on Oct. 19, 1983, by a vote of 78-22, two weeks after North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms attempted to derail the effort with a one-man filibuster. He did not end the filibuster from a change of heart, but because he was worried that legislation favoring tobacco growers would be scuttled as a result of his rather bigoted assault on King’s memory. Helms’s pretext: King, in his view, was a communist sympathizer. “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” President Reagan, who had also initially resisted the holiday, said, in reference to court-sealed FBI records about King.
Other Senate opponents of the bill included Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), Chuck Grassley, (R-IA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and Warren Rudman (R-NH).
On Oct. 16, 2011, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the first honoring a black person at the Washington Mall, was dedicated after two decades of planning and construction (the monument grounds had opened on Aug. 22). The 30-foot granite structure, which Congress authorized in 1996, is the work of Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The $120 million project includes a bookstore, a wall of King’s quotations and some 200 cherry trees. About $800,000 went to the King family, which demanded the money in exchange for granting permission to have King’s words and likeness used.
“Our work is not done,” President Barack Obama said at the dedication. “And so on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. […] And so with our eyes on the horizon and our faith squarely placed in one another, let us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair, and more just, and more equal for every single child of God.”
The full speech and video are below.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech
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 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.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our 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 the unalienable 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 the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” 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 the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no 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 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 quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’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 Negro 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 Negro 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.
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. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. 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 Negro’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 Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, 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 great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the 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 northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. 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.
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 interposition and nullification; one day right there 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 exalted, 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.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I 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 stand 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 a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers 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 prodigious 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 snowcapped 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 Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to 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!”
[Originally published in 2011 and revised since.]