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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Part 2: Martin Luther King: I have a dream... Personal Reflections

It is worth remembering the stated demands of the event which led to arguably the greatest speech of the 20th century. The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations. Among the demands were the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; a major public-works program to provide jobs; and the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring.

The second part of Professor Hilary Russell’s lecture began with a film of Dr. King giving his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. A crowd of over 250,000 attended what was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital and despite worries of violence and a large police presence, the march is remembered for its civility and peacefulness.

Watching the speech again after many years, I was quite over-whelmed by my own memories of that time in my life. There was a great deal of coverage on television and the March on Washington was the major news event of the summer. I was 18 years old and as I watched the speech live longed to be there, too. Within 10 days or so, I would be leaving my New England home to attend George Washington University – only a few blocks away from where Martin Luther King was speaking.

I can remember watching the speech as it built to its astounding and mesmerizing conclusion. As Professor Russell said, “It was a sermon, a political treatise, a work of poetry, all rolled into one.” I remembered well how the speech began slowly and then seemed to swell in authority and excitement as the words “I have a dream” echoed and re-echoed in to an all-inclusive crescendo to “Let freedom ring”.

Midway through the speech,  the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, is said to have cried out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” and that’s when he ad-libbed what followed. “This” said, Professor Russell, “gave ‘I have a dream’ its raw power and edge – King was living the words that he spoke.

As I listened to the power of the oratory so many half-forgotten memories of that time came flooding back. His words and the peacefulness of the movement he led inspired me to believe that all things were possible. I was on my way to the future filled with hope. Hope that came crashing down around me two months after my arrival in Washington, D.C. with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I remembered the evening of that day running to the White House – only a few blocks away – and seeing hundreds of black people, sobbing, walking aimlessly, as if a great dream had been destroyed. I saw the helicopter arrive with the new President – the man who it turned out was able to pass laws to uphold civil rights.

The decade of the 60’s was troubled and often violent. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both murdered – within weeks of each other. I witnessed riots in the streets not far from where I was living. Many more began to believe that non-violence would never succeed.

We still have work to do, but the words and work of Martin Luther King definitely started us on a better path to righteousness. As he said at the end of his speech, 

“When we let freedom 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!”

21 comments:

  1. And please God, may that day come sooner rather than later.

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  2. A speech that it as important today as it was back then.

    Thank you for sharing your recollections of first hand experiences. These were such important times. We must never forget the struggles and join hands, in outrage and peace to fight further injustices.

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  3. There is as much or more rigid thinking and hatred to be rolled back today, fifty years later. When will it ever end...?

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    1. My mother, a real history buff, says she has always hated reading about the American Civil War because it still hasn't ended. You would think that after over 100 years people would have learned. The hatred that still exists is very intimidating and undiminished...

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  4. The beauty of the words and the power of the delivery just rocked me. I was 20, and like you I was moved to believe in possibilities and change for the better. That's a good thing, because without that idealism nobody could commit to working for change. The shock and disappointment and came with assassinations, etc., took away my innocence but not my motivation. Thanks for posting this reminder of a life-changing speech from 50 years ago.

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    1. It was such a momentous period for our generation. I was surprised how much seeing the speech again affected me -- I was struck quite dumb!

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  5. Fifty years ago, and it feels like yesterday if you were part of the generation that opened up their eyes and dared to dream big. You must have lots of memories from your college days as the sixties and early seventies belonged to a generation that believed in the flower power, and in the power of standing up to authority.

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    1. It was a time of great idealism, but also of terrible violence. Protests agains the war in Vietnam, race riots, assassinations... The Democratic Convention in Chicago was a nightmare. The reality of all that hope and optimism was a great deal of pain...

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  6. I can hardly fathom that it was fifty years ago... I was a young impressionable mother who didn't even know about it then. Coloring my hair was more important, I admit with shame.

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    1. Thank goodness 'normal' life was able to continue for some! There certainly was a lot of 'insanity' going around for a long time.

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  7. It is hard to believe it was so long ago, and that those times we lived through were so significant. Perhaps every generation feels that. I wonder what our children and grandchildren will remember as so important. Jx

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    1. That is an interesting point -- what will our children and grandchildren remember as important. Overall, it seems to me an even more dangerous time with our world growing smaller and smaller. What is the saying ... the more things change the more they stay the same...

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  8. It really is the greatest speech I've ever heard. I'm still moved to tears whenever I hear it -- thinking of the sacrifices made for progress, thinking of how much still needs to be done after all these years, and the sheer beauty of the language. That was such a time for dreams and optimism and believing -- from John Kennedy's Inaugural speech ("Ask not what your country can do for you....") to this one. Both were so definitive of our youth.

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    1. These speeches gave us something so intangible and ideal to believe in and hope for. I doubt any of us who were involved will ever recover from it -- even though there was much disappointment and disillusionment there was also progress. Who would have imagined the emergence of Barack Hussein Obama?

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  9. I was 17 when King gave this speech and I still vividly remember watching the TV coverage in the UK and being strongly inspired by it. I still remember exactly where I was and what i was doing when I heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination and was equally saddened bu his brother's assassination and that of Martin Luther King.

    So much hope and promise cut down, but somehow we still managed to be idealistic and optimistic, thinking that surely things must change. Fifty years on and after many changes already I still think that, but am not sure it will be in my lifetime. A great couple of posts, Broad.

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  10. Thank you, Perpetua. It is a bit disconcerting to look back over the years and to realize that so much of our idealism seems to have been misplaced and that there still seems to be such a long way to go...

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  11. Dear Broad, thank you for giving us the video of the entire speech. I was in the convent in August 1963. Actually, I was studying theology up at Collegeville, Minnesota, at the BEnedictine monastery there. I can't remember how I learned about the speech and whether it was that day or later. Your memories are so vivid. Thank you for sharing them with us. The '60s were a time of violence and befuddlement and great anger and also shame on the part of many of us who were beginning to recognize the racism of our culture and our own part in that. The dream that Martin Luther King, Junior, shared with us has not been realized. And yet, slowly, we move forward into we would be a nirvana for humankind. Peace.

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  12. I have never watched the speech my friend
    Thank you for sharing it x

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  13. It is one of the great sermons of our time. If only folks on BOTH sides of the argument - the bigots AND those who, in trying to repair wrongs, set up different wrongs - would allow his "... not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" to see fruition.

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