The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and challenged America to look at itself in the mirror, see its injustices and dare to make a change.
His words, dubbed the I Have a Dream speech, remain some of the most famous in American history. The four words “I have a dream” have become the most identifiable quote attributed to him. When taken out of context, however, they can lead to a misunderstanding of his legacy.
“King was called [by God] to speak truth to power, to address evil and injustice in the world. When we freeze him in that narrow reading of the speech, we undermine his ministry,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., professor of religion and chairman of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University. “His was an aspirational claim that to be a genuine society, where everybody has the possibility to realize their dreams, we have to root out all that keeps people from becoming the treasures that God intended them to be.”
To begin to fully understand King’s message, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. encourages people go beyond the “I have a dream” sound bite and read the entire speech.
Moss, a pastor and civil rights leader whose career included a co-pastorate with Martin Luther King Sr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, also advises that people remember that the speech was given during The March for Jobs and Freedom.
Moss was a 28-year-old pastor in Cincinnati at the time and served as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference mobilization team to get people to Washington.
“Race was a critical factor. Racism had, to a large extent, become the religion of our nation. However, the march and the speech included deep and abiding economic issues,” Moss said. “The predominant signs carried by those gathered in Washington said, ‘We March for Jobs and Freedom.’
“In the words of Dr. King, the march was a once-in-a-lifetime event, when a group of people across racial, ethnic, professional and various backgrounds came together and subpoenaed the conscience of a nation.”
King’s speech, although the most notable, was among many that day, Aug. 28, 1963. The march, attended by an estimated 200,000 people, was the largest demonstration to that point in the nation’s capital. It also was one of the first to receive extensive television coverage.
The march represented a coalition of civil rights organizations, all with different agendas and using different approaches.
The most prominent organizers of the march were James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young Jr., of the National Urban League.
Labor’s role in march
Lenworth Gunther, a historian who has researched photos and videos of the march, likened the organizers on stage to the tip of the iceberg. Labor, he said, represented the largest, unseen force and paid for much of the funding and transportation (generally buses) to and from the march.
“When we look at the march, it’s like looking at an iceberg. We see the one-fifth that’s above the water, but we don’t see the four-fifths below the water,” Gunther said. “It was the four-fifths below the water that caused the Titanic to sink. We need to look at the four-fifths — the labor unions — for the essence and the meat of what was said.
“King’s speech was about jobs, labor and changing the structural nature of racism in this nation. It was far deeper than a metaphor on stage. It was unions — white labor, black labor — and interracial and interfaith forces — Christians and Jews — coming together to make a statement,” he said.
Gunther, who was a 15-year-old high school student growing up in Harlem at the time, notes that there were also about 100 members of U.S. Congress on the platform and that about 100,000 of those in attendance were white. One of the major goals of the march was to create political and public momentum for the civil rights movement.
The march took place during a time of racial unrest and civil rights demonstrations. National public outrage had been sparked by media coverage of nonviolent civil rights demonstrators, many in their early teens or younger, being attacked by police dogs and being beaten back by high-powered streams from fire hoses. King was arrested during the protests and penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, advocating civil disobedience against unjust laws.
The climate of 1963 was also influenced by the death that June of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home, and a rising tide of hostility and rebellions related to social and economic injustice in the north. In addition, a Civil Rights Act, which President Kennedy backed, had stalled in Congress.
The march is credited with influencing the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education and employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated voter discrimination.
Speech delivered previously
The speech itself was one King had delivered on numerous occasions — in Detroit, to student groups in the south and at civil rights gatherings. For the march, King fine-tuned it to say that the movement had to be retooled to go beyond the scope of civil rights and race to include economic and social inequalities.
“Dr. King is beginning to make a transition. He is a southern Baptist minister beginning to see the injustice in things, like spending more money on a military than on people who are suffering in our own cities,” Gunther said. “Dr. King is on this moving train. He’s not driving the train, but he is announcing where the stops are going to be.”
Gunther, Glaude and Moss agree that the impact of the speech was that it retooled the movement. It also ended with a challenge to those in attendance to go back to their communities and continue to work for justice and equality in all aspects of life.
Clayborne Carson was 19 years old when he left the march with that charge. He credits the march with influencing his vocational choices as a professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at the school.
“What King was talking about is an ideal that still has not been realized. He was talking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the right for everyone to have the American dream,” Carson said. “He makes it clear that he is talking about freeing every person — not just black people — who has their opportunities restricted because of race, class, religion, gender and all the various things that place limits on people.
“Dr. King was definitely not focused on the single issue of race. He was focused on the issue of justice and equality,” Carson continued. “He was a social gospel minister who believed that part of the gospel mission was to deal with issues that oppress people.”
Less than three weeks after the march, a bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four black girls. The bombing was a stark reminder to those who vowed to continue the struggle that there was still work to be done, Moss said.
King delivered the eulogy at the funeral of three of the girls; more than 8,000 people attended.
Moss said America has not lived out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal.
“In Dr. King’s words, ‘We cannot turn back’ and ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,’ ” Moss said. “America has still not covered the check that he referred to. Dr. King said that the founders of this nation issued a promissory note that ‘all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
“It was obvious then, and it is obvious today, that ‘America has defaulted on this promissory note.’ ”
Moss, Carson, Gunther and Glaude reject the claim that the election of President Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president is evidence the dream has been realized. They cite recent changes in voting laws, persistent high unemployment and poverty rates in the nation’s cities, disparities in education and discrimination against homosexuals and people of color as examples that obstruct the fulfillment of the dream.
“One of the most important things about Dr. King was his willingness to, in an unabashed way, reveal the ugliness of who we are — to force us to look ourselves square in the mirror and see those practices that dirty the soul — and to call us to renewal,” Glaude said. “We are currently living with those kinds of practices that continue to hurt ‘the least of these.’ The dream will only be realized when those injustices no longer exist.”