On this day in 1963, at a mass gathering on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech that would become a beacon of the civil rights movement and that historians would rank with the greatest oratory in the nation’s history. Yet as he took the podium, he had no idea he was about to deliver an address for the ages. The most memorable parts of the speech weren’t even in his written text.
The idea for a march on Washington had originated with A. Philip Randolph, the longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph had threatened to stage such a demonstration as early as 1941, when he had wanted to protest the exclusion of African-Americans from defense jobs. He had called off that gathering when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to outlaw racial bias in federal hiring. He planned the 1963 event to focus on jobs for black people, but events that year prompted a coalition of civil rights leaders to organize a more comprehensive event.
In May, authorities in Birmingham, Alabama, where King himself had recently been jailed, arrested a thousand children who were attempting to march for freedom. When more children skipped school to demonstrate, public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered them assaulted with billy clubs, police dogs, and high-pressure fire hoses. In June Alabama Governor George Wallace openly defied the federal government when he stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from registering at the all-white institution. That same month the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot dead in front of his Mississippi home.
President John Kennedy announced that he would introduce a wide-ranging civil rights bill, but he privately doubted it could pass. He opposed the planned march on the capital as counterproductive. When the leaders declared themselves determined to proceed, Kennedy voiced his support, but he had an operative ready to cut the sound system if the oratory became incendiary. The Pentagon posted 19,000 federal troops in Washington’s suburbs in case of violence.
Trains and buses poured into Washington through the early morning hours of August 28. Some organizers had thought as many as a hundred thousand might attend. As it turned out, the crowd numbered more like a quarter of a million. The nation had never seen anything like it.
The mood was peaceful, almost festive. Gathered at the Washington Memorial, the marchers listened to the folk singers Odetta, Josh White, and Bob Dylan. Many headed off early to get good seats for the rally that was to follow at the Lincoln Memorial. They brought picnic hampers and thermos jugs and enjoyed a convivial if sultry afternoon.
Bayard Rustin, the event’s main organizer, had limited each speaker to eight minutes and was strict about keeping the program moving. The 34-year-old King, scheduled to speak last, had worked on his remarks through the night, trying to pare them to the allotted time. He wanted to hit a tone that would press for change without alienating a nervous citizenry.
As the afternoon dragged on, the onlookers grew weary. Some stretched on the grass and dozed. Some headed home. Finally Randolph introduced King, “the moral leader of our nation.”
For about ten minutes, King read from his prepared text. The address he had laid out, as his biographer Taylor Branch explains in Parting The Waters, was “a mixture of truncated oratory and fresh composition. The speech was politically sound but far from historic, nimble in some streaks while club-footed through others.”
King noted that the march marked the “five score” anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, paying tribute to Lincoln, whose massive statue peered over his shoulder. The marchers had come to cash a promissory note to which every American was heir, he said. But for citizens of color, the note of freedom had turned out to be “a bad check.”
He talked of “the fierce urgency of now.” He warned that “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.”
He directed words of caution to those in his own movement who talked of black separatism. He urged the path of nonviolence and stated, “We cannot walk alone.”
When he came to the point of bringing his short speech to a close, of sending the marchers back to their homes, he wavered. He seemed to sense that his balanced text had not done the job.
Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel singing had brought the audience to tears moments earlier, urged from the podium, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Whether he heard her or not, he started on an oratorical flourish that he had delivered many times before. He had spoken almost the same words at a June rally in Detroit. “I still have a dream,” he boomed in his honeyed baritone. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
He was no longer speaking, he was preaching. Inspired, eloquent, and utterly sincere, the minister from Atlanta was practically singing as he told of his dream that his own 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.”
Like a jazz musician, he improvised his way through the last 6 minutes of the 16-minute speech. He recited lines from the patriotic anthem that ends “let freedom ring.” He spoke of freedom ringing from every mountainside, even from “every hill and molehill of Mississippi.” He ended as he had ended many other speeches, with “the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
The world was watching that day. The television networks had preempted their soap operas. President Kennedy, a seasoned orator himself, was impressed by King’s style as he viewed the rally from the White House. King’s words and impassioned delivery stirred the nation. And he would never have such a forum again.
Nor would he live to see his dream come true. Shortly after the march, a Newsweekpoll showed that 74 percent of white Americans felt that “Negroes were moving too fast.” Eighteen days later, Alabama segregationists answered the oratory in Washington. They bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls who were putting on their choir robes.
King himself became the target of government eavesdropping and harassment. Many whites who had praised his ideals were disconcerted when he brought his civil rights efforts to northern ghettos and when he spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam war.
Still, the massive demonstration that August would have an important impact. The event brought together an interracial alliance, nationalized the civil rights movement, and firmly fixed racial equality on the country’s agenda. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson pushed through a civil rights act with teeth, and Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed.
More than 40 years later, King’s words remain a beacon. He spoke that day of freedom for “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”
“If America is to be a great nation,” he declared, “this must become true.”
—Jack Kelly writes often for American Heritage magazine and is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics—A History of the Explosive That Changed the World (Basic Books).