Our political leaders have hyped it, some would say abused or misused it for their own purposes, but bend it, twist it, turn it upside down – it will not be broken.
It remains one of the most powerful, truthful, ground-breaking speeches ever uttered. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from Washington DC about the dream of racial equality in this nation, sparked a revolution that could no longer be ignored, and set a new watermark for all political speeches to follow.
The Detroit Free Press has this remembrance:
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the lectern at the March on Washington 50 years ago to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, the text in his hand didn’t contain the words “I have a dream.”
That refrain, and the part of the address it punctuated and propelled, was improvised on the spot. Having written a good speech — a working title was “Normalcy — Never Again” — King instead gave one of the greatest of the 20th century.
There are other things that most of us don’t know about this storied speech. The march wasn’t King’s first use of the “dream” refrain. He came to rue the phrase, and by the time he died, the speech had faded from public memory.
King spoke on Aug. 28, 1963, at the biggest, most important civil rights demonstration in American history. It was the heart of the civil rights movement — eight years after the anti-segregation Montgomery bus boycott; three years after the lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville and Greensboro, N.C.; two years after the first Freedom Rides on interstate buses through the South; and three months after police in Birmingham, Ala., horrified the nation by using attack dogs and fire hoses against women and children protesting segregated public facilities.
At least 250,000 people had jammed the National Mall to demand “jobs and freedom,” including passage of a civil rights bill. But all many people know or remember is King, preaching a gospel of hope from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
On the day of the march, more than two-thirds of Negroes (as African Americans were then known) lacked the right to vote, attend integrated schools or use the same public facilities as whites.
But King’s movement finally had made civil rights the nation’s top domestic political issue. The summer would see 1,122 civil rights demonstrations around the nation and about 20,000 arrests, almost all in the South.
On the Wednesday morning of the march, Washington was tense. Outside the city, thousands of combat troops were ready to move in, in case of trouble. Many businesses were closed. White House lawyers had drawn up martial-law orders for President Kennedy to sign if necessary.
The crowd gathered slowly at the Washington Monument and marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where the movement’s leaders would address them. King, not yet 35, went last.
He had worked on the speech over the previous four days, finally finishing a few hours before dawn in his suite at the Willard Hotel.
As millions watched on television — all three networks had cut away from regular programming — King began reading from typed text. He invoked the words of the president whose likeness loomed in the background: “Five score years ago …” King said, the Emancipation Proclamation “came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night” of the slaves’ captivity.
But 100 years later, he said, “the Negro still is not free.” The promises of Lincoln’s proclamation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were like a “bad check.” Now, he said, we’re here to cash it.
After 10 minutes, he was more than halfway through a recitation that had been well received but was, as King biographer Taylor Branch would write, “far from historic” and in places “clubfooted.”
Then, King looked up. He put aside his text, for he had seen — or just as likely sensed — an opportunity.
This in itself was not unusual; King rarely spoke from a text, preferring to assemble speeches and sermons from an array of what Hansen called his “set pieces” — bits of oratory based on Bible stories or verses, songs, old sermons and other sources.
Now, King began skipping whole paragraphs from his prepared text. Some on the platform noticed, including Clarence Jones, a King adviser who had worked on the speech. “He’s off. He’s on his own now. He’s inspired,” Jones told Hansen in 2002, four decades later.
Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier and was one of King’s favorite gospel singers, cried, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”
Although it’s not clear whether King heard her, he did.
“I say to you today my friends, 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. It is 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.'”
Having raised his eyes, he now had to raise his voice to be heard over the growing applause. He continued to profess his dream, repeating the refrain seven more times, moving from justice and equality to something deeper — a human bond transcending race.
“I have a dream that some 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.”
It was as if only once he was up there, gazing out, could King see a future many that day could not: “… 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!”
To his wife, Coretta, it seemed King had forgotten time itself, that his words flowed “from some higher place.”
He ended suddenly, returning to the speech that had been lying unread on the lectern for the last line: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty — we are free at last!”
For a moment the audience was stunned. Silence. Then, a rocking ovation.
Ralph Abernathy, King’s deputy and a fellow preacher, told him, “Leader, you swept today.”
At the White House, President Kennedy — who with King would produce much of 20th-century America’s memorable oratory — turned to an aide: “He’s damn good.”
Kennedy and his aides had honed his inaugural address for weeks, and he had read its stirring words as written; at Gettysburg, Lincoln gave the speech he had written. But King created a masterpiece on the fly, “like some sort of jazz musician,” said David J. Garrow, whose King biography, Bearing the Cross, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. “It’s the spontaneous parts of the speech that people remember.”
What has happened in the years since these powerful words were spoken can be debated forever. Whether the dream lives on, was fulfilled, or turned into a nightmare (as Dr. King often asserted before his assassination) does not diminish the message that resonated with people all over the world.
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