"With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who've shaped America." (John Meacham)
It was a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Monument and delivered a "masterpiece of rhetoric", calling on America to make good on its promise laid out in the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years before. Dr. King said that America had given the Negro people "a bad check" and now it was time to "cash that check". He punctuated his speech with the words "I have a dream", repeating them over and over for effect.
You would think that such an eloquent discourse would have been practised weeks or even months in advance. However, a mere twelve hours before its delivery, Dr. King was not sure what he would say. His focus had been on the planning on the March for Jobs and Freedom, not on the speech. While he had brought a prepared speech for the occasion, it was the black singer Mahalia Jackson who really got him stirred up with her comment: "Tell the about the dream, Martin!" spurring him to depart from his script and deliver the most moving part of his speech.
Dr. King quoted from the Bible and from Shakepeare's Richard III. He mentioned the "sweltering summer of the Negro's discontent" which he hoped would be followed by "an invigorating autumn". His words rang true: that fall, president Kennedy signed the Civil Rights Act, which put the ball in motion to free the blacks from oppression.
Here is an excerpt from Dr. King's speech:
"I say to you today, my friends, 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 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.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."