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Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech lives on

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Martin Luther King' speaking during March on Washington,1963. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of history's great orators, was murdered 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968. A Baptist minister inspired by Scripture and Mahatma Gandhi, King used non-violent civil disobedience to gain civil rights for African Americans. He faced daunting challenges: he was loathed by Southern whites and other conservatives, and spied upon by the FBI. He was also criticized by some Black militants who believed that his commitment to non-violence was naïve and unproductive.

March on Washington

King was facing all of those pressures as he and others planned the March on Washington in August 1963. It was attended by 250,000 people, including an estimated 60,000 whites. King was the last of 10 speakers, and he talked for 17 minutes. He had help in preparing his remarks but King had been so consumed with preparations for the march that he left his final draft until the last minute. It contained no reference to his having a dream.

He was both a political and religious figure but King was, above all, a preacher, and his speech in Washington became a sermon to the nation. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a site rife with meaning for African Americans, King began with an indirect reference to Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation which the president had signed in 1863. "It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity," King said in an allusion to Psalm 30. "It was a great beacon of hope," he added, but that covenant had been broken.

"One hundred 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 . . . and so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."

There had been tense negotiations prior to the event. President John Kennedy was concerned that if it was too angry or became violent his plans to introduce civil rights legislation might be derailed. King and the others promised that they would keep their speeches calm and the event peaceful, but he picked up his tempo and inserted a note of urgency. "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 make justice a reality for all of God's children."

'About the dream'

The speech would have been a good one had King stayed with his prepared text, but it became a great one when he departed from it. One of the audience members was entertainer Mahalia Jackson who had sung for the crowd. About 12 minutes into the speech, she called out to King asking that he tell the audience "about the dream." It was common in Black churches for members of a congregation to participate in a sermon by sharing a "that's right" or "Amen."

It is not clear whether King actually heard Jackson, but he would have been familiar with such a call-out. King began to improvise, no longer looking at his prepared text. He had delivered a version of the dream speech on numerous other occasions but none as prominent as this. He described a land of slavery and hatred which, he said, must be replaced by freedom and equality. He used the rhetorical device of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of succeeding sentences and it was mesmerizing:

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 where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Let freedom ring

King's entire speech, including this portion, was rich with metaphor and allusion to both religious and secular sources. He ended with a series of 10 more repetitions, including these:

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 . . .

After this climax, King ended the speech with reference to an old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

This great speech improved chances for Kennedy's civil rights bill to pass. Tragically, the president was assassinated a few months later, and it was left to his successor Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. King continued the struggle but he, too, fell to an assassin's bullet. On the evening of April 4, 1968 he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee -- but his legacy and his dream speech live on.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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