for National Geographic News
On a cloudy day earlier this week, Cleveland Bennett headed down to The Mall in Washington, D.C. The 82-year-old retiree slowly made his way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, then stopped at an inscription on the granite landing at the foot of the marble monument. It read: "I have a dream."
This is where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech, calling for racial equality, on August 28, 1963, exactly 40 years ago. Bennett was one of 250,000 people who had gathered for "The March on Washington," a multiracial demonstration for jobs, justice and civil rights.
"It was a strange day," Bennett recalled. "We were all very touched and entranced by the speech and the preaching. But we didn't realize what Dr. King had said until it was over and there was time for it to sink in."
Today, King's 16-minute address is widely considered the greatest American speech of the 20th century. It helped shape the civil and human rights movement, not only in the United States but also around the world.
"The speech was amazingly eloquent, but most of all it was visionary," said Douglas Haynes, a professor of history at University of California in Irvine. "It built a framework for racial reconciliation, and gave America an opportunity to repair its past and rebuild its future."
The 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union in the United States.
After President John F. Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to the U.S. Congress in June 1963, Randolph believed that a demonstration would help build support for the bill. Kennedy, who had devoted little time to civil rights in office despite a campaign promise to end segregation "with the stroke of a pen," at first opposed the march, fearing violence, but later changed his mind.
The turnout was greater than anyone had expected. "Freedom trains" and "freedom buses" shuttled an estimated 250,000 people to Washington. U.S. Senators and Representatives came. So did celebrities like Jackie Robinson, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Bob Dylan. Singer Josephine Baker flew in from Paris.
King's address, the last one that day, was not billed as the keynote speech. But once the Baptist minister took to the microphone, the crowd was electrified. His speech was a dazzling demonstration of the power of words, made even more remarkable by the fact that much of it was extemporaneous, including its most famous portions.
"I have a dream," King told the crowd, "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.'"
He concluded with the immortal words: