There have been few if any events in our lives as baby boomers with as much positive impact as a single speech, on a single day, fifty years ago. BoomerCafé publisher and co-founder David Henderson remembers it well, and remembers it to this day.
Hard to believe. It was a lifetime ago … 50 years … since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On that hot August day in 1963, he looked out at the mass of people — hundreds of thousands, both black and white. And, he spoke.
I watched his speech on TV. I lived in Arlington, Virginia, just a few miles away, and today, I regret not being right there in Washington at the time. But, I was just a boy, and I must admit that the significance was lost on me until I watched him speak on our black-and-white TV.
Then, as now, I have always felt that Dr. King’s words were divinely inspired, for he did not look at his notes but rather, turned his eyes to the sky, and said:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neitherrest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence heretoday, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
I sat there in the living room and listened … spellbound … because I had never before heard Dr. King speak. Beyond that, I had never before heard such a powerful speech that spoke not to compromise but to what the United States had to confront and achieve. It was about choosing right from wrong. It was about doing something about racism in America and equality, once and for all.
Then, he said:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream 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.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, 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 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!”
When he finished, and the massive audience erupted in applause and cheers, I honestly felt that Dr. King knew. Yes, he addressed the throng gathered along the Tidal Basin in Washington. But his eyes were often to the heavens during his speech. God was handing him the words, I thought in my boyish innocence. I’m all grown up now … but I still believe that.
I only wish I could believe, sitting here in my own home in Arlington 50 years on, that everything in his speech was fulfilled. There has been much progress over the decades but we are also a nation that backslides into old biases, the haves and the have-nots.
I will be rereading Dr. King’s words over and over again, and make a promise that as one person, I will try my level best to do better.
We have a video archive of film from that day … August 28, 1963 … that includes much of Dr. King’s speech: