A quarter of a million people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was August 28, 1963, and many there that day knew the final speaker as an activist who had led groundbreaking civil rights protests in the heart of Dixie. But the world would soon know Martin Luther King, Jr., as the man who awakened the soul of a nation with one of the most important orations in American history.
King, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of five civil rights groups that organized the march, began with prepared remarks noting that "five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." But deep into his 16-minute address, King began to improvise, drawing on his extraordinary gifts as a preacher. "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,’ " he said. King, who was only 34, had used the "I have a dream" phrase in other speeches, but never so stirringly or so memorably.
Bob Adelman, a photographer’s assistant then 32 years old, was near the podium. "I kept getting closer until I must’ve been only seven or eight feet away," he recalls. "I took 80 to 90 frames of him speaking. It was probably the greatest moment in his life and the greatest moment in mine."
"I have a dream," King went on, "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!"
People in the front row joined hands and began swaying, says Drew Hansen, author of a new book, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation. King was a "poet who could take the words of the King James Bible, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and make them uniquely his own," Hansen says.
By the time King thundered "Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee," some in the crowd were weeping. Tension mounted, and at the end of King’s address, his voice booming yet lyrical, he called for the day "When all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ " The crowd released a "great cry like the sound of the heavens being torn open," Hansen writes.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a former Georgia congressman, was also at the event, which was carried by radio and television. "For the first time a mass white audience heard the undeniable justice of black demands," Bond later recalled. King himself referred to the occasion as that "radiant August day."
King was born in Atlanta in 1929. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother, a schoolteacher. He started college at 15 and obtained his doctorate in theology at BostonUniversity. He found in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to reform a "moral and practical way to struggle against social injustice."
Starting in the 1950s, King led numerous demonstrations, including the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended segregation on the public transit system in Alabama. Still, many regard the "Dream" speech as his apotheosis. The oration is cherished because it marks a "hopeful and triumphant time in King’s career and in the trajectory of the civil rights movement," Hansen says. Among the era’s triumphs were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring segregation in public places; the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1964, prohibiting the poll tax; and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, abolishing literacy tests as a requirement for registering to vote.
In 1968, King, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers when he gave his last public address. "Longevity has its place," he said. "But I’m not concerned about that now." He went on, "I may not get there with you. But . . . we as a people will get to the promised land." He was assassinated the next day, April 4.