Washington, D.C. is known for its monuments and memorials. These honor military personnel, politicians, statesmen and poets who have helped to shape our nation. The National Mall is the location of most of the famous monuments. On one end is the United States Capitol; at the opposite end, the Washington Monument. The addition of a memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. provides further recognition of his significant contributions both to the growth and development of America, and in particular, to the Black experience. The sculpture, some 30 feet high, sets it apart from those nearby honoring Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It is in keeping with the intent of the National Mall, which was intended as a place to remember American heroes, to celebrate freedom and to be a forum for exercising freedom in the form of protests and rallies; this is what this expansive mall has done in the past and continues to do.
Accounts of the King Memorial make it next to impossible to avoid reflecting on the event of Aug. 27, 1963 when more than a quarter-million Americans, Black and white, young and old, participated in the March on Washington. Some of you do not have a complete understanding of its origin or recall the roles of people like Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, its key organizers. Its goals were the passage of significant civil rights legislation; addressing racial segregation in public schools; police brutality; a jobs program; prohibiting racial discrimination in housing; a $2 an hour minimum wage; and self-government for the District of Washington. This march represented a coalition of civil rights organizations. They included the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League. President John Kennedy originally opposed the march, fearing it would negatively affect the vote for civil rights laws. While most unions supported the march, the AFL-CIO was neutral. It should not surprise you, however, that the Ku Klux Klan opposed it. Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington.” While you may not be familiar with these facts, you have some knowledge of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This was one of two memorable speeches during the march; the second was by John Lewis of SNCC. King’s is the most noteworthy speech of our time. In recognition of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial, I would like to return to King’s words of Aug. 27, 1963. How many of us have reviewed its actual words and embraced them as a direction for the future? So, here are excerpts from King’s actual words spoken back in the day.
Five-score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. ... crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note … that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. … America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. … So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. … 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 neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. … 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 not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. … We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, 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 a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four 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 the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. …With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
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." … From every mountainside, let freedom ring. 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!"
This was truly an outstanding speech marking a significant event in the history of America; a momentous event from back in the day.