Tomorrow (28th of August) marks the 50th anniversary of what has become one of the most famous speeches in history, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech was part of a “March on Washington for jobs and freedom”, which was organised by 6 civil rights organisations. These were King’s “Southern Christian Leadership Conference”, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (NAACP), “The National Urban League”, “The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters”, “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” (SNCC) and “The Congress of Racial Equality”. The day included many performers and speeches. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang together, but for most people the highlight was King’s speech.
I suspect nearly everyone is familiar with the “I have a dream” part of this speech. But in the video clip below is the complete speech, which is some 16 minutes long. The “I have a dream” part doesn’t begin until the 12th minute, and I would imagine a lot of people are not famiiar with what King says before the famous finale.
Here is the opening part of the speech:
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.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the colored America is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
I am trying to remember when I first became aware of this speech. I think it was when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I know from talking to my children that they are now introduced to the ideas of King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela in their “religious education” classes, something we were not when I was in school.
Although I am a little vague as to when I first became aware of the “I have a dream” part of this magnificent speech, I do remember distinctly when I first became aware of the beginnings of the speech. It was in 1998, and I had bought a DVD of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and it had an article on this speech including a video of the complete speech. This was in the days before YouTube, and it was the first time I had heard the opening parts.
Within a few months of King giving this speech, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Initially it seemed as if the hope of meaningful civil rights legislation had died with him; Lyndon Johnson had never shown much support for this cause. But, to many people’s surprise, Johnson pushed through the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, ensuring most forms of racial segregation in the US were outlawed.
In the years that followed this famous I have a dream speech Martin Luther King would go on to accomplish many other great things, including being the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on the 4th of April 1968, and towards the beginning of April next year I will write the fourth blog in this series, summarising his life from this speech through to his death only four and a half years later.