We know that the name "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" is a little bit of a mouthful—but this is to pressure the Washington establishment to pay more attention to civil rights and take legal steps to outlaw segregation is one of those things that you have to know about. Whether or not you're a history buff or someone who's only vaguely aware of the fact that 1776 was a pretty big year, get your knowledge on when it comes to the March on Washington for a couple of reasons.
Reason #1: it was one of the largest protest marches in American history…and that's a history that has contained a lot of marches. Reason #2: Martin Luther King, Jr. was the big finale.
There were so many speakers that day that by the time he came to the podium and delivered "I Have a Dream," some people had already left, like people leaving during the fourth quarter of a basketball game.
And those people that left are probably still regretting that.
100% pure oratory awesomeness. Next question?
Oh, never mind. We're more that happy to lay out the text of "I Have A Dream," even though it starts our bottom lips quivering and our normally cynical hearts turning to hopeful mush.
The speech starts out by naming the huge problem: one hundred years after slavery ended, African Americans are still oppressed. As King himself put it, "We've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition" (3.5). (MLK was pretty good when it came to expressing things.)
At first, MLK sticks to the basic ideas he and his allies had written out before the speech. He describes the treatment of African Americans as a defaulted check—as in, the U.S. government wrote a check that bounced, and Black Americans got exactly nada.
He argues, "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights" (7.5). The message is clear: this movement ain't stopping. King continues by giving encouragement to people who went to jail or got attacked by police while demonstrating for civil rights. Then he assures everyone that he (and the audience) won't be "satisfied" (9.4) until there's total equality in America. This is moving, riveting stuff, but it ain't half of what's coming.
Then the speech goes the improv route…and gets elevated from an already amazing speech to so-amazing-its-required-reading-for-all-Americans-starting-in-grade-school. Even wonder why there's an MLK day every January? This speech is at least 40% of the reason why, guys.
In a style that reflects his day job as a reverend, Martin Luther King, Jr. riffs on the "I have a dream" theme. For six paragraphs in a row, he describes a vision of racial unity between descendants of slaves and slave-owners—a revolution of tolerance.
The end of the speech references the song "America The Beautiful," riffing on the phrase "let freedom ring" (20.2-8). Another song, the African American spiritual "Free At Last," wraps up this epic speech.
This guy has a dream that one day all races will treat each other equally. Um, yes.
The spring and summer of 1963 proved to be one of the most important times of the Civil Rights movement. On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated; white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith would not be found guilty of his murder for nearly thirty years. In April, 1963, protest against discrimination in the downtown department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, culminated in protests on April 4. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest during these demonstrations and the media coverage of police violence against the demonstrators catapulted both the movement and King, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), into the national spotlight to an even greater degree than before. The boycotts and mass marches eventually provided sufficient pressure that white leaders promised to desegregate the stores’ facilities, hire African Americans to work in the stores, and establish a biracial committee for ongoing talks concerning racial problems.
These gains were achieved at a price, however: King was jailed briefly; police brutality occurred against protesters; and arrested protesters filled Birmingham’s jails. Nevertheless, the filled jails negatively affected the capacity of police to arrest and hold demonstrators, which was exactly what King and other civil rights leaders had hoped; news coverage of police brutality outraged many citizens; and, while jailed, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a document that delineated the need for and goals of the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. The acclaim that met this document foreshadowed the reaction to his speech at the March on Washington two months later.