“I Have a Dream”
Fifty years ago today, on the morning of August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King looked out from his suite at the Willard Hotel as crowds began mulling around the Washington monument. He had stayed up until four in the morning drafting and redrafting his speech. As King looked on, his aides were furiously typing the finished draft for distribution to the press. King’s greatest fear was that the march would turn violent. “If that happens,” King told Ralph Abernathy, “everything we have done in Birmingham will be wiped out in a single day.” Turn-out was a close second on King’s list of concerns. He had hoped for 100,000 marchers, but at the scheduled start date of 9:30 a.m., less than 25,000 had gathered at the Washington monument.
Within an hour the numbers surged to 90,000 with many more on the way. By the time entertainers had finished their warm-up act and the formal speeches began, the crowd exceeded 200,000. The following day the New York Times described it as “the greatest assembly for a redress of grievances that this capital has ever seen.”
The program called for ten speakers representing many of the leading civil rights, religious, and labor groups in the nation. The program started late and progressed slowly, with several spotty and uninspired speeches. The first speaker to capture the audience was young John Lewis, who gave a defiant jeremiad indicting “politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation.” Lewis demanded federal legislation that would provide real protection. “We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”
Roy Wilkins, executive-secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, used humor to praise Kennedy’s bill by promising to “emancipate” Southern politicians from office if they did not support the civil rights bill. Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, sang a Negro spiritual that brought the crowd to tears. Finally, Martin Luther King took the podium to a thunderous applause.
King began the speech by proclaiming that today would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” He recalled the broken promises of the Emancipation Proclamation. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…. America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned…. And so we’ve come to cash a check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of peace.” He warned of future civil rights demonstrations until these demands were met. He admonished his followers against “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He praised redemptive suffering. He urged his listeners to go back home with the confidence, without “wallowing in the valley of despair.”
Then, midway through his speech, King went off script. He embarked on a theme he had preached many times before: the prophetic dream of a future harmonious America. For members of the civil rights movement, it was nothing new; King routinely preached that God would redeem America. But on this day, millions of Americans watched for the first time as a black preacher, the most eloquent one in the country, prophesied about a future day of racial reconciliation:
So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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 equated equal.
I have a dream that one day one the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and 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 my four 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, … 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 shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
The crowds were on their feet in thunderous applause. Millions watched that day, and the country was transfixed by the peaceful demands for racial equality. What could have been a day of violence and riots was a day of dignity and hope.
President Kennedy, after meeting with civil rights leaders, issued a statement praising the march. “One cannot help but be impressed with the deep fervor and the quiet dignity that characterizes the thousands who have gathered in the nation’s capital from across the country to demonstrate their faith and confidence in our democratic form of government.”