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.
It was the start of what has become known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most revered and most influential orations in history, a stirring improvised poem of human hope and possibility.
At the time, many Americans thought that King was simply speaking about freedom for blacks, freedom from discriminatory laws and discriminatory attitudes and a discriminatory culture.
Yet, half a century later, it’s clear that, when King said, “I have a dream today,” his vision was much greater.
His dream was twofold.
He sought freedom for all people everywhere — each man, woman and child — from the chains of repression. He dreamt that all people everywhere would someday stand on equal footing, without limitations imposed because of race, ethnicity or some other accident of fate.
And, over the past fifty years, his words have been an inspiration to anyone across the globe seeking to get out from under the boot of an oppressor. And they’ve been a beacon of promise for those who, like King’s fellow blacks, have been seeking equality under the law and in the eyes of society — women, the disabled, lesbians, gay men, the poor, anyone living on the margins.
Yet, King’s dream was even broader than that.
“Free at last!”
He had the deep religious and human insight that the victims of discrimination aren’t just those who are the targets of prejudice. But also those who do the discriminating.
If I discriminate against another person, I am choosing power instead of love, fear instead of openness. I am lying to myself if I say that, because of color or sexual orientation or some other feature, I am better than someone else.
Not only am I living a lie if I look down on certain groups, but I’m blocking myself from the richness of life. I will never tap into the wisdom of the people in those groups, or their beauty, or humor. Or their love. I am isolating myself, and that too is the crime of prejudice.
That was the insight that King had, and the insight that fueled his vision:
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!”
The speech he planned to give
The irony about King’s address is that it isn’t the speech he had planned to give — at least, not the parts we remember.
In the summer of 1963, legislative efforts on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans were stalled, and President John F. Kennedy was doing little to get them unstuck. The March on Washington was aimed at pressuring the President and Congress to act.
As King stood at the Lincoln Memorial, he looked out at some quarter of a million blacks and whites who had taken part in the massive peaceful demonstration. Although violence and chaos had been feared, there was a palpable air of dignity and joy in the crowd.
“Nothing like it had ever been seen in the country — over two hundred thousand Americans, the largest crowd ever to gather in the capital, and all of them orderly,” wrote historian William Manchester in his book The Glory and the Dream. “Most were Negroes, but thousands of whites came, too…They sang hymns and spirituals, and ‘We Shall Overcome.’…Their self-discipline was a marvel. The District’s fifty-nine-hundred policemen had nothing to do but direct traffic.”
King, however, wasn’t only speaking to those before him. He was also addressing countless other Americans who were watching his address as it was being televised live — a rare occurrence in those days.
He knew that his speech and the March on Washington represented a potential turning point in the fight for civil rights. In fact, later, David Halberstam, writing in the New York Times, called the day “a great televised morality play.”
Cramped his style
And it’s clear that King was more than a bit over-awed by how much was riding on his words. It cramped his style — at least, initially.
Formal, sober and high-minded, the speech began with an echo of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…”
The rest of the written text was like that, structured along the lines of classic oratory and filled with historic allusions. And much too wordy.
Indeed, one early line was: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.”
As King came to that sentence, he apparently realized how clunky it sounded, notes Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters, the first book of his three-volume biography of King.
So, instead, he looked up from his text and, speaking from the heart and from his experience in hundreds of pulpits, told his listeners:
Go back to Mississippi; 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.
“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” shouted Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer who was sitting among those on the platform with King.
Maybe he heard her. Maybe not. He appeared distracted, starting a sentence in one direction, but then heading off extemporaneously in another. The result of the ad-libbing that followed was a soaring moral statement of great literary and spiritual depth.
I say to you today, my friends — and 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 here they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
“A riveting ecstatic dignity”
The dream image wasn’t new. King had made reference to his dream in other speeches, including recent ones in Detroit and Chicago.
Yet, as he moved into the rhythm of this final, closing, impromptu section of his speech, he wasn’t parroting earlier addresses. In fact, for a moment, he found himself at a loss for words.
Those watching on television could see him looking very confused and uncertain when, in the middle of the section on Mississippi, he seemed to come up short before finally finding his way again and regaining his flow.
Even so, now that King had abandoned the high-toned phrasing of the prepared text, his words seemed weightier, saturated with meaning and importance.
“The slow determination of his cadence,” wrote Branch, “exposed all the more clearly the passion that overshadowed the content of the dream. It went beyond the limitations of language and culture to express something that was neither pure rage nor pure joy, but a universal transport of the kind that makes the blues sweet.
“Seven times he threw the extremities of black and white against each other, and each time he came back with a riveting ecstatic dignity.”
Nearly two hundred years earlier, the American Declaration of Independence had made the then-radical assertion of the equality of men. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln just as radically redefined the nation, not as a collection of states but as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” dedicated — above all else — to “a new birth of freedom.”
In the bright sun of that hot summer day in 1963, King went further, arguing that the movement of blacks for civil rights was an effort to bring freedom and justice to all people — all people.
He made a reference to this earlier in his speech:
The marvelous 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, and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
But it was much clearer when he got into the power and poetry of the “I Have a Dream” sequence. He was speaking not to and on behalf of blacks but to and on behalf of all people.
“A beautiful symphony of brotherhood”
His hope, he said, was in a vision of black children and white children joining hands as sisters and brothers. It was also his faith.
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….
“So let freedom ring……
The speech, according to Ralph Abernathy, King’s top aide throughout the Civil Rights movement, was “a gift to America, a great new affirmation of the principle of equality to put in its National Archives…[and an] eloquent rekindling of the American dream.”
In his autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Abernathy wrote that King “gave the cheering crowd, as well as the millions who watched on television, the vision of a future no one else had defined and few black people could imagine…
“He simply looked beyond the injustice and hatred and division to see what America could become, if and when it realized its fullest potential as a nation.”
And not just America.
King looked ahead and saw freedom “for all God’s children.”
Patrick T. Reardon
This article originally appeared in the summer, 2013 issue of Reality magazine in Ireland.