Speech By: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Date: August 28, 1963
Location: Lincoln Memorial
Occasion: March on Washington
For those who can remember the excitement this speech wrought, it hardly seems fifty years. But measured across the changes it brought, it might better be measured in light years.
In a sense, it turned our nation in the direction of becoming the people we had always professed to be. But America was already headed in the direction the March on Washington wanted it to go anyway.
For all of the very real horror and terror and dehumanizing abuse African Americans had suffered, since signing of the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier, change was coming. And the speech itself made that clear. The demand for equal rights was a process gaining steam. It was a demand made – not only by those who were denied that equality, but by those who were not denied but stood shoulder to shoulder with them – the crowd at the March on Washington was biracial.
What this speech did was accelerate the process. How? Like every great speech - by finding an audience beyond that of the people to whom it was first delivered.
Using as a backdrop, the carved marble visage of the man who had signed the Proclamation which began that achingly slow process, King stood before a crowd estimated at 250,000. Few speakers ever get to address such crowds.
After a brief introductory sentence, King begins with an homage to the most famous speech of the man in whose stone shadow he stood – “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
He then goes on, while giving credit to the founders and the system of promise they created, but at the same time labels it a promise unfulfilled. Slavery may have been abolished a century earlier, but segregation is the new slavery: “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
And, while he warns those who would perpetuate this modern slavery that their time for being called to account is at hand, he issues equal warning to those who would engage in excess in response: “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.”
That philosophy, along with the philosophy of nonviolence, is key to the success of the man who preached them, and the ultimate success of his movement.
About halfway through the speech, King issues his call to action: “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.”
This is unusual – normally, the call to action is one of the last elements of a speech, or even the final passage of it. There is a reason. He is about to take a decent speech, and by ad-libbing, make it historic.
“I have a dream” – is not in the text of the speech originally distributed to reporters covering the event. King added it as he stood there. And he employed that phrase in one of the classic oratorical devices – repetition. He uses it eight times.But the classic lines are these: “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.”
The speech would immediately become known by this bit of improvisation.
Could he have dreamed that less than half a century later, the Oval Office would be occupied by a man of his own race? Or that President Obama would render this verdict on the movement that King led? “Because they marched, America became more fair. America changed for you and me, and the entire world grew strength from that example.”
We can only dream he did.
Length (words): 1652