“I Have a Dream”: The 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Famous Speech
By Stephen Prothero | August 27, 2013
The Lincoln Memorial may be the most iconic place in the United States. Americans go there alone or with friends and family members to remember their most iconic president. They also go there en masse to protest when their nation has fallen short of Lincoln’s ideals, and their own. Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial can read inscriptions from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural. They can hear concerts and listen to speeches. After the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the African-American contralto Marian Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1939, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Beyoncé, Bono, and Bruce Springsteen performed there in 2009 as part of the inauguration festivities for President Barack Obama. One year later the conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck held a “Restoring Honor” rally at the same site. Of all these Memorial moments, however, the most celebrated came on the afternoon of August 28, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the microphone at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, now one of the most famous utterances in U.S. history.
On June 11, 1963, the same day President Kennedy would address the nation on civil rights, leaders in the civil rights movement announced plans to march on Washington in order “to arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro.” On June 22, President Kennedy met with leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights groups behind the march—the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Urban League—to urge them to cancel the protest. They refused. After a series of labor and religious groups joined the organizing team, the president gave the march his blessing. But he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worked behind the scenes to moderate it.
Young black militants worried that the event would turn into nothing more than a picnic. Older civil rights veterans worried that it might turn violent. Many in D.C. feared violence, too. On the day of the march, all bars and liquor stores in the District were closed, a baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the Washington Senators was cancelled, and the D.C. police, reinforced by 2500 members of the National Guard, were on high alert. “The general feeling is that the Vandals are coming to sack Rome,” wrote the Washington Daily News.
Meanwhile, King and his colleagues fretted about a low turnout. But supporters came by planes, buses, and trains, and on August 28, 1963, a crowd of perhaps 300,000 marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in the largest demonstration in U.S. history. The gathering was peaceful, the mood buoyant. At the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson reprised her 1939 appearance by singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” There were songs by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and speeches by representatives of each of the Big Six. John Lewis, a SNCC leader who would later go on to represent Georgia’s 5th district on Capitol Hill, had prepared a fiery speech that called out the federal government for its complicity in racism and segregation, and damned Kennedy’s civil rights bill as “too little and too late.” A draft found its way into the hands of Washington’s Archbishop O’Boyle (who was slated to give the invocation at the march) and through him to White House. Efforts to persuade SNCC to tone it down were unsuccessful until A. Philip Randolph, who had first imagined a march on Washington to protest segregation in 1941, personally prevailed on Lewis. “I have waited twenty-two years for this. I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity,” he said. “Please don’t ruin it. John, we’ve come this far together. Let us stay together.” As he recounts in his memoir, Lewis still spoke against Kennedy’s bill, but he did not promise to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did . . . and burn Jim Crow to the ground.”
King, the last of the main speakers, began by noting that this march was happening one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation—“five score years ago,” he calculated, in language reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address. And yet “the Negro is still not free,” shackled by segregation, discrimination, and poverty. In keeping with the march’s dual emphasis on jobs and freedom, King spoke of those who put their names to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as “signing a promissory note” guaranteeing to Americans of all races “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But America had not made good on this promise, he said, “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.”
Drawing on the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah, who had chastised the people of Israel for their sinful ways and called upon them to repent and return to their covenant with God, King laid bare the sins of America. Throughout U.S. history, Americans have been tempted to turn the conditional covenant invoked by Massachusetts governor John Winthrop in his 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella into an unconditional covenant in which God blesses America no matter what Americans do. But King called for a revitalization of the more venerable tradition in which God would bless the nation if and only if it heeded the call of Winthrop and the Old Testament prophets to “do justly, and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Like the Hebrew prophets, King saw no clear demarcation between the sacred world of the spirit and the secular world of politics. Like Winthrop, he saw no clear line between biblical times and his own.
In words drawn from Amos that would later grace Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” And in words based on the passion of Jesus on the cross, he urged those who had been “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” to stand firm in “the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” “Now is the time,” he said, in a recurring refrain, “to make real the promises of democracy.”
As King was delivering these prepared remarks, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson reportedly cried out for him to talk about his dream. Two months earlier, in Detroit, King had given a speech about his dream for America. Few had remarked upon it, but it had moved Jackson, and soon King’s was moving millions of Americans watching him on national television. Setting aside his written speech, King metamorphosed from prophet to visionary, hewing “a stone of hope” out of “the mountain of despair.” Improvising on his vision of the American dream to the cadences of the Bible, he “turned the Lincoln Memorial into a Baptist sanctuary and preached an inspiring sermon,” according to Michael Eric Dyson in his book I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. As his words picked up speed with the “urgency of now,” he shared his vision of an America in which the equality promised in the Declaration would be made manifest in the South and the freedom promised in “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” would ring “from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” and “the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado” to “Stone Mountain of Georgia” and “Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.”
King concluded his speech by raising his hands and allowing himself to imagine “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews an 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!”
The next day the news was neither the record turnout nor King’s speech but the fact that the city had not been overrun by rioting. Nonetheless, the success of the march and the power of King’s words gave the civil rights movement a huge lift, pressuring Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (when there were only five African Americans in the House) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (when there were only six). America, it seemed, was willing to make good on the bounced check. But then the movement lost its momentum. King, who was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1964, turned increasingly to economic issues, and to protesting the war in Vietnam. More militant black voices gained ground, including the Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who famously dismissed the March on Washington as the “Farce on Washington.” Then came the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965, and King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. In ensuing decades, anniversaries of the March on Washington were reprised by rallies in Washington, D.C., and King’s speech emerged as a yardstick to measure America’s progress on racial equality, economic justice, and freedom for all.
Since his death, King has made the migration from man to martyr, honored with a national holiday in 1986 and with a memorial of his own on the Mall in 2011. So it should not be surprising that the words of his most famous speech have been appropriated and misappropriated, both at home and abroad. According to Drew Hansen, by the early 1980s, “it was excerpted in countless American studies textbooks, reprinted on posters sold in college bookstores, and emblazoned on pins and T-shirts sold at civil rights rallies. . . . In Nelson Mandela’s victory speech after South Africa’s first multiracial elections, he declared that black Africans were ‘Free at last.’ Protestors in Tiananmen Square held up billboards with pictures of King and the words, ‘I have a dream.’”
King’s speech, which Andrew Young described as “our Declaration of Independence, our declaration of freedom, and our Gettysburg address,” has inspired gay rights activists to dream of a day in which “the sons of homosexuals and the sons of heterosexuals will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” King’s dream of a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has also been used by William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservatives to criticize affirmative action as “reverse discrimination,” despite the fact that King advocated “special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.”
In 2000, “I Have a Dream” was named by a panel of 137 academics the greatest political speech of the 20th century. In 2009, with the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s first African-American president, there was much talk of King’s dream, and of Obama playing Joshua to his Moses. But according to a study entitled, State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression, the incarceration rate for black men that year was more than six times that for white men. The unemployment rate for young black men was 33 percent. The portion of all blacks in poverty was 24 percent, versus 8 percent of whites. So Americans are still struggling to answer the question, posed by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Excerpted from The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation by Stephen Prothero (HarperCollins, 2012).
Martin Luther King, Jr.: 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 in exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we’ve 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’ve 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 open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time!
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 and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 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 worn 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. And 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 self-hood and robbed of their dignity 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 a 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 racist, 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, 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 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!”
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.