Still, many believe much work is left
Many of its words were improvised, and some were not even original. But Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech summarized the struggles of millions of Americans and inspired people of all backgrounds, then and now. The 18-minute oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial remains a seminal moment in American history.
The March on Washington in 1963, which was not solely organized by King, was intended as a peaceful demonstration for “jobs and freedom” for all Americans. It also served as a mass call for passage of civil rights legislation introduced by President Kennedy two months before.
Organizers feared a low turnout, but an estimated 250,000 demonstrators, about a third of them White, showed up in Washington to hear an array of celebrities, activists and performers.
In the crowd that day was St. Ambrose College junior Bill Gluba, who served as the mayor of Davenport, Iowa from 2008-16. “St. Ambrose was a hotbed of progressive liberal thinking in that era,” recalled Gluba, who is White. “A number of the faculty and students, including myself, were committed to the real principles of the Declaration of Independence, of equality for all.”
Also in the crowd was Dr. Henry Brockington, a retired faculty member from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, who was then a 23-year-old Howard University student. “I was active in civil rights in the Washington area,” said Brockington, who is Black. “I did a number of sit-ins and went into neighborhoods in Washington and the surrounding areas.”
Headlining the event was the 34-year-old King, who used about half of a prepared speech that opened with a reference to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He followed with a comparison of the signing of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to a “promissory note” guaranteeing “inalienable rights.” But King declared that “America has defaulted on this promissory note,” giving “the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “‘insufficient funds.’”
Though his words were well-received, after 10 minutes he sensed an opportunity. He laid aside his text and spoke from the heart, invoking the words “I have a dream,” though it was not the first time he used that phrase in a speech; he had actually spoken it several times before.
But on this day, the words rang as never before. He repeated them seven more times to growing cheers, referencing the Declaration of Independence, the racial struggles of the South, and his hopes for his four children. His concluding passage of “free at last, free at last” was from his original text and met with thunderous applause.
“It was a very historic moment,” said Gluba. “You could just sense it, with the sheer number of people of all ethnic backgrounds, all coming together. It was probably the largest peaceful demonstration ever in Washington, and it was kind of overwhelming.”
Brockington still remembers where he was standing. “I was by a tree on the right-hand side of the reflecting pool,” he said. “I still call it ‘my tree.’
“It was the most fulfilling speech I had heard in my lifetime to that point,” recalled Brockington. “It was the most exhilarating, most promising experience, because I felt I was needed. I saw what I had to do to help others. For the first time in my life, I really felt like an American, not just an Afro American, because of the mass of people of many different races.”
King’s words were heard nationwide, as all three networks pre-empted regular programming to broadcast the speech live. The speech remains one of the most recognizable moments of the era.
Coretta Scott King later recalled her husband’s words as coming “from some higher place.” The Los Angeles Times lauded the speech as “matchless eloquence,” a sentiment shared by most observers.
In addition to its historic impact, the speech is also considered a model of rhetoric. King’s historical and Biblical allusions and use of repetition hammered home his message, creating a timeless quality to his words that still resonates to many today.
“Dr. King was the most powerful orator I’ve ever heard,” said Gluba. “And I’ve heard a lot of presidents, senators, and other leaders.”
However, within a few years the speech had faded from view, partly due to subsequent events. Three weeks after the March on Washington, a Baptist church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young girls and tempering the optimism that flowed from King’s words. The Kennedy assassination that November, coupled with the Vietnam War and other hallmarks in the civil rights struggle, also overshadowed the speech.
As the March on Washington intended, the Civil Rights Act was signed in July 1964 and legally banned discrimination in jobs, voting, and public facilities. Other landmark advancements in civil rights followed, but the struggle was hardly over. In 1965, a disappointed King declared that his “dream” had become a “nightmare.”
King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 revived interest in “I Have a Dream,” and it has since taken its place among the greatest orations in American history. A 1999 poll of scholars by the University of Wisconsin ranked “I Have a Dream” as the top American speech of the Twentieth Century.
In 1986, King’s birthday became a national holiday, and the speech is a common theme of its celebrations. Its words have been repeated worldwide, including by Nelson Mandela and during the Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989.
Still, many Americans believe King’s dream is not yet reached. A Pew Research Center poll released around the 50th anniversary of the speech in 2013 revealed that 49 percent think “a lot more” needs to be done to realize King’s vision. Since then, other events in America have further demonstrated the racial divide.
“I think if Dr. King were here today, he’d be disappointed and saddened,” remarked Gluba in 2013. “There’s still a tremendous lack of civil equality and economic justice, and in many ways, we’ve regressed from the strides we made after the Civil Rights Movement.
“African Americans are still struggling, in some ways worse now than then,” continued Gluba. “There’s been such a breakdown of families, crime is a problem, and jobs are an issue. There’s still a lot to do to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.”
Brockington, who like Gluba has remained a civil rights activist, agrees. “Has progress been made since then? Yes,” said Brockington in 2013. “Am I satisfied with the progress that has been made? No. I’m not totally satisfied with everything that has been accomplished, because there is still work that must be done.”
Tom Emery is a historical researcher and freelance writer from Carlinville, Ill. He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.