Martin Luther King Jr.'s Civil Rights Dream at 40

By Stefan Lovgren and Tara Murphy
for National Geographic News
August 28, 2003
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."

Freedom Trains

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:

When we allow freedom to 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 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 that old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Redemption and Forgiveness

King, the son of an Atlanta pastor, was born in 1929. He became an ordained Baptist minister at the age of 19. In 1955, shortly after civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey Montgomery, Alabama rules mandating segregation on buses, King led black residents in a bus boycott.

King soon gained national fame for his extraordinary oratorical skills, and for his courage. In the spring of 1963, he led mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where local white police officials opposed integration. Violent clashes between unarmed black demonstrators and police armed with dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines throughout the world.

His message, however, was not confrontational, but instead emphasized racial reconciliation through non-violent means. This theme was at the core of his "I have a dream" speech.

King was speaking directly to the 250,000 people, black and white, gathered on the Washington Mall that sweltering day 40 years ago. Perhaps more importantly, however, he knew he was also addressing the millions of people, most of them white, who were watching the speech live on television.

"He created a reasonable argument that [white] Americans could embrace," said Haynes. "He appealed to those Americans who didn't see segregation as a major problem, but still thought it was unfair," said Haynes.

Ulysses Jenkins, another UC Irvine professor, who teaches African-American studies, says King had to convince white people of the benefits of racial reconciliation.

"Whites feared that they had something to lose from racial equality," said Jenkins. "King had to show them they would gain something from it."

The strong religious underpinning of King's message, with its references to redemption and forgiveness, resonated with white Christians. King's speech also tapped into America's political soul. He said the ideals of American democracy had not been realized until there was racial reconciliation.

"His message was larger than civil rights," said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University in Palo Alto. "King was fighting for justice."

But the speech also served as a warning.

"King wanted people to act," said Carson, who was 19 years old when he attended the march. "The underlying message was clear: As long as there was no change, the demonstrations would continue."

Fulfilling The Dream

King's renown grew after his "I have a dream" speech. In 1964, he became Time magazine's "Man of the Year." Later that year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, there was increasingly conflict within the movement's leadership. The message of black nationalism, espoused by Malcolm X, resonated with urban blacks more effectively than King's call for nonviolence.

King's public criticism of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam also strained his relations with President Lyndon Johnson's administration.

On April 4, 1968, while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated outside his motel room by James Earl Ray. In 1986, U.S. Congress proclaimed a national holiday in his honor to be observed on the third Monday in January each year.

Whether King's dream of racial reconciliation has been fulfilled is an issue that has been hotly debated. Even as the civil rights movement succeeded under his leadership in ending the legal segregation of blacks in the United States, King did not believe that his dream was being fulfilled during his last years.

The statistics suggest that discrimination lives on. An estimated 23 percent of black Americans live below the poverty line, while only 12 percent of whites do. More black men were incarcerated in prison in 2000 than enrolled in college or university.

In 1963, however, many black people could not vote; neither could they use the same restaurants, bathrooms, or hotels as white people.

Jenkins, the UC Irvine professor, remembers heading to college in Louisiana shortly after segregation had been abolished. A white man at the train station demanded that Jenkins, who is African-American, carry his bags. When Jenkins refused, the man yelled: "Can you believe it? These niggers won't even carry my bags." Jenkins replied: "I'm never carrying your bags ever again in my life."

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this week, Cleveland Bennett, the retiree, says Martin Luther King's message is still relevant today. "Some of the dream has been fulfilled," he said. "But there is much still to be accomplished."

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