28 August 2013

‘I have a dream’ ... remembering
the speech half a century later

It is fifty years today since the Revd Dr Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on 28 August 1963

Patrick Comerford

It is fifty years ago today since the Revd Dr Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech on 28 August 1963.

Twenty years later, as I was writing my first book, Do You Want to Die for NATO? (Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press, 1984), I selected quotation for Martin Luther King to head three of the seven chapters:

“Our world is threatened by the grim prospects of atomic annihilation because there are still too many who know not what they do” (Chapter, 1, p. 9).

“We have guided missiles and misguided man” (Chapter 2, p. 16).

“In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either non-violence or non-existence” (Chapter 7, p. 89).

Those quotations have not lost their relevance and significance three decades later. Nor have the points made by King in his “I Have a Dream” speech half a century later.

Last weekend, the Economist pointed out that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a simple clarification of America’s founding promise that "all men are created equal,” and have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, while it pointed out that America has changed beyond recognition over the past 50 years, the legacy of discrimination is hard to shake off.

Despite the end of most forms of segregation and the election of a black President, black Americans remain likelier that white Americans to lack jobs, be poor, get arrested and spend time in prison, and the gap in household income has widened from 2000 to 2011 and is enormous.

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman on the night of 26 February 2012, in Sanford, Florida, Zimmerman's acquittal of second-degree murder and of manslaughter charges last month [13 July 2013], and the subsequent reactions and protests show how divided and insensitive many sections of American society are to this day.

In his speech to over 250,000 civil rights marchers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King called for an end to racism in the United States. The speech has since become a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Dr King waxed eloquently as he went out live on radio and television. At the end of his speech, he left his prepared text for an improvised set of excited exhortations beginning: “I have a dream …” His improvisation was probably prompted by Mahalia Jackson as she cried out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

You can listen to the speech here.

‘I have a dream,’ the Revd Dr Martin Luther King jr, 28 August 25, 2013:

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 light of hope to millions of Negro 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 Negro still is not free.

One hundred years later the life of the still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

One hundred years later, the Negro 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 dramatise a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our 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 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 colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which 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 cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the to make justice a reality for all God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today. They have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?”

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.

Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.

Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

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 a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a stat, sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of and 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 be judged not by the colour 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 whose lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together 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, 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.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; 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.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that 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!”

For the past half century, there has been public controversy about the copyright status of the speech. I am making it available on this anniversary for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues, which constitute a ‘fair use’ of copyrighted material under Title 17 USC section 107 of the US Copyright Law, and this material is not being distributed for profit.

Copyright inquiries and permission requests may be directed to: Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Intellectual Properties Management, One Freedom Plaza, 449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30312.

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