It is the 50th anniversary of the speech that “resonated among Americans of that time across the spectrum of race, ideology, and politics.” That speech, of course, is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address in Washington, D.C. in 1963.
Of course it is common knowledge that King had a dream that his “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” and that for the United States to “be a great nation” it must “let freedom ring.”
Certainly less know is the first part of the speech—the bulk of the speech, in fact—leading up to triumphal conclusion. On this occasion, it warrants review:
Perhaps presciently, King began by describing the event, which, in his words, would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” To date, this seems to be the case.
He moved on to Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, a “momentous decree” that was a “great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” Still, one hundred years later, “the Negro still is not free.” Here, King took an economic spin by citing “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” With this formulation, King’s address might well fit in today; however, he quickly left the theme of economic inequality.
After painting the broken promises of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in financial terms—“the bank of justice is bankrupt”—King described “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” So, at least in this address, economic inequality cited earlier resulted from a lack of freedom.
Next, King described “the fierce urgency of Now” and that “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” was unacceptable. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
Those promises were comprised of “citizenship rights,” defined earlier in the address as “freedom” and “opportunity.” This required “dignity and discipline.” King implored the black community not “to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
It was here that King touched on his Gandhi-like (Gandhi-inspired, even) theme of peaceful protest. Violence would prove counterproductive, in fact. He even explicitly criticized a “marvelous new militancy.”
Making the speech resonate “across the spectrum of race, ideology, and politics,” King tied together the freedom of both whites and blacks. In fact, King said that “many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” From values near and dear to average American, King bound the freedom of one segment of society to the rest. “We cannot walk alone,” he continued.
Then, King got specific, repeating a question asked of civil rights activists at the time: “When will you be satisfied?” Well, he sought an end to “police brutality,” hotel discrimination, mobility, and “Whites Only” signs. With this, he asked his audience to return to their homes—particularly in the south—and to persevere: “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
The struggle would continue, but believers in the Constitution, the Declaration, and civil rights could take solace knowing their cause was just. They could know “that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
From here, King quickly approached the speech’s climax by first stating, “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.” The dream was essentially that all Americans would judge one another not by the groups to which they belonged but rather on an individual basis.
Shrouded in Biblical language, King again asked for freedom: “With this faith, we will be able to work together…knowing that we will be free one day.” Both Biblical and Revolutionary. The Hebrews sought freedom, as did the Founders of this country.
King ended with the words of “the old Negro spiritual”: “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The goal was freedom. There were no demands, at least in this speech, for particulars outside of liberty—the end of oppression and the allowance of opportunity. If King had specific ideas about the expanded size and scope of the federal government, he kept them under wraps here. Instead, he appealed to the broadest audience possible and in terms that should have held true and dear to every American.