It was 57 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It continues to echo down the halls of history almost six decades later.
The occasion for his speech on August 28, 1963, was the March on Washington at the hight of the civil rights movement. Over a quarter of a million supporters gathered at the Mall in Washington D.C., where King delivered his public speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking over the Reflecting Pool.
President John F. Kennedy had proposed earlier that year in June new civil rights registration, and this march was to demonstrate support for its passage. It was remarkable because it was one of the first such demonstrations of that size that was given extensive television coverage.
A century earlier, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had declared millions of slaves free, but the declaration did not affect that freedom. The country was in the midst of a Civil War.
King asserted that:
“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free”
But the famous line “I have a dream” was not part of his prepared speech. Instead, toward the end of the address, it was when the renowned singer Mahalia Jackson — who had sung “How I Got Over” just before his speech — called out
“Tell them about the dream, Martin,”
that he related his dream of freedom and equality in a modern America.
King was not the only speaker, but the other leaders also supported peaceful civil disobedience. The phrase “civil disobedience” was not original to King. Still, he brought it to people’s attention, at least in the U.S., as part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, starting on December 1, 1955.
He popularized the concept in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” where he had been incarcerated following his arrest for participating in protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963.
As a Baptist minister, he was advised by his Biblical theology of nonviolence. But he was also influenced by similar practices by Gandhi in India in the early 20th century.
“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 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!”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian