OTD in History… August 28, 1963 & 2008, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his I Have a Dream Speech & Barack Obama accepts the Democratic Presidential nomination
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 28, 1963, Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized by Bayard Rustin. The march and the speech were geared towards convincing President John F. Kennedy and Congress to pass the civil right legislation the president proposed in June. King delivered what is considered one of the best speeches in American history and the best of the 20th century on the “steps of the Lincoln Memorial” to an audience of 250,000. They descended on the capital to peacefully protest and demand as the History Channel recounts, “voting rights and equal opportunity for African Americans and to appeal for an end to racial segregation and discrimination,” that had been plaguing African Americans since the end of reconstruction. Journalist Gary Younge in his book The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream writes, the speech has “the themes of equality, freedom, and solidarity which it is based are nonetheless universal.” (Younge, 26) The sixteen-minute speech diverted greatly from seven-minute text King prepared to deliver. Historians question whether the speech would have the same impact as the preacher’s sermon King delivered.
The speech invoked many of the greatest speeches and writings in American history including Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation, combined with the soaring rhetoric King developed as a Baptist preacher. King reminded the country that “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” with the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans, “the Negro still is not free.” The speech had an overriding theme of “I have a dream.” King had used the motif twice before in similar speeches in November 1962, June and August 1963, and been using the dream metaphor since 1960 but none had the impact of the speech King delivered at the March on Washington.
King repeatedly used his “I have a dream” phrase eight times as an Anaphora to describe his hopes and vision of equality and integration for African Americans: “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 slaveowners 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.”
King refers to the promises the nation made to all its citizens, saying. “America has given the Negro people a bad check… In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . a promissory note . . . for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In fulfilling the promises it made, the country would be able to atone and get redemption for “its racial sins.” King concluded his speech describing how it would be in America when his dream would dream would be realized: “So let freedom ring… And when this happens, and When we allow 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!’”
As historian Jon Meacham noted, “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.” While historian Garry Wills called the Dream Speech, “the greatest speech given since [Abraham] Lincoln’s time.” Media Studies professor, Mark Crispin Miller in his book King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech determines, “King’s greatness, as well as the greatness of his speech, lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time.” (Miller, 10)
Representative John Lewis who spoke at the March on Washington as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalled, “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.” Ralph Abernathy, King’s longtime friend and aide, said the Dream Speech was “a prophecy of pure hope at a time when black people and the nation as a whole needed hope more than anything else.” (Miller, 10) In the subsequent two years, President Lyndon Johnson would continue and push Kennedy’s legacy after his assassination, particularly civil right legislation, with Congress passing and Johnson signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the ratification of the 24th Amendment barring poll taxes for voting.
It would take 45 years for another young charismatic African American leader to come around to help realize King’s dream. On February 10, 2007, Illinois Senator Barack Obama launched his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination with the themes of hope and “yes we can.” Obama delivered his launch speech on the steps at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois also invoking Lincoln, where the Great Emancipator delivered his 1858 “House Divided” Speech. Obama fought for the nomination against front-runner former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. On June 3, Obama secured the nomination after a close primary season.
On August 27, in Denver, Colorado, the Democratic Party officially nominated Obama, marking the first time an African American clinched a major party nomination. Obama delivered his acceptance speech on the symbolic day of August 28, as the realization of King’s dream. Obama’s acceptance speech, “The American Promise,” invoked King with similar rhetorical patterns; Obama repeatedly used the phrase “I’ve seen it,” as King said, “I Have a Dream” implying the dream being fulfilled.
Obama specifically referred to King and his “I Have a Dream” speech towards the end of his acceptance speech, calling the dream the “American Promise.” Obama expressed, “Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend. That promise is our greatest inheritance…. And it is that promise that, 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.
The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead — people of every creed and color, from every walk of life — is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one. “We cannot walk alone,” the preacher cried. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” America, we cannot turn back… America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.”
Americans did not turn back, on November 5, 2008; the nation resoundingly elected Barack Obama the first African American President in history, he would go on to be reelected in 2012 serving two terms in office. The 2008 presidential election would see the greatest numbers of African Americans turning out to vote, many registering for the first time. Just after the Obama’s victory, historian Peniel E. Joseph explained the significance linking Obama to King. Joseph indicated, “If Obama’s election illustrates the tremendous strides in racial progress made in America since the 1960s, high rates of black poverty, unemployment, and incarceration attest to the long journey that lies ahead. Ultimately, the most immediate effects of the nation’s first black president on African-Americans may be in allowing a new generation of young people to realize their enormous potential by imagining a world where their dreams actually can come true and the possibilities for advancement are unlimited.”
Unfortunately, during Obama’s time as president, there was a resurgence of racism and violence against the African American community with police brutality and murders, sparking renewed protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. By 2016, most African Americans “described race relations as generally bad,” still, they have never returned to the way they were in 1963 as King declared, “I have a Dream.” As Younge notes, Fifty years on, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation — not racism but formal, codified discrimination — the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus. While the struggle to defeat segregation was bitter and divisive, nobody today is seriously campaigning for its return or openly mourning its demise. The speech’s appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic, and public articulation of that victory.” (Younge, 33) Not even an African American president could solve all the nation’s racial prejudices. King’s dream was partially fulfilled with Obama’s election and presidency; however, the nation still has more to do to become that “more perfect union” where it is “an oasis of freedom and justice.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Miller, Mark C. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Younge, Gary. The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2013, 2015.
Jones, Clarence B, and Stuart Connelly. Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.