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!”