I am happy to share with you today, 55 years after the original speech, the anniversary of one of the most iconic moments of the 20th Century.
On this day in 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a civil rights rally for jobs and freedom. He delivered a speech to almost 250,000 people, many of them white, and improvised the now famous 'I have a dream' segment. It was a speech that made history.
At the time, America was a cauldron of racial discontent. Segregation in the South meant that black people had to sit at the back of the bus or stand if all seats were taken. Separate restrooms, limited employment opportunities, and water cannons in Alabama blasting black people including children as young as eight happened just months before the speech.
It was no accident that such a rally happened in 1963. It was exactly one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by Abraham Lincoln, freeing all Confederate slaves. Following a century of continued inequality and mounting civil unrest, President J.F Kennedy spoke to the nation in June laying the foundations of the Civil Rights Act, which came into being in 1964.
Dr. King's speech was delivered late in the day, and many people had left to 'miss the traffic'... imagine being so close, but so far from witnessing history! Although the event was televised, the speech delivered to so many people at such a powerful rally wasn't reported in the press widely and the Washington Post on the following day made no mention of the speech at all. In time though it was the Washington Post that printed the full speech for the very first time anywhere. This was twenty years later in 1983.
Following the speech, 1963 continued to be highly racially and politically emotive. Dr King was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year, and this was followed by the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Less than three months after the 'I have dream' speech, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and just over a fortnight after the speech was delivered white supremacists bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham Alabama, killing four girls and injuring 22 others. The speech changed things, just not quickly.
We can feel the legacy of the speech today. Dr. King led the charge for non-violent protest, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest peaceful march of the time. All peaceful marches can trace their roots back to that day in August 1963.
The linguistics of the speech contribute to its power. He makes biblical references, paraphrases Shakespeare, uses tone, pause and intonation to build emotive crescendos. The use of rhyme, repetition and metaphor create an inspirational vehicle that we can remember today. We may only be able to recall 'I have a dream' or a few elements of the speech, but we know what the guts of the speech mean. Equality and fairness. Character, not colour. Very well crafted and very powerful. As a preacher, Dr King knew how to talk and inspire. Even with meticulous preparation into the early hours, the 'I have a dream' part was improvised on the day! The speech was well planned, but a soul singer called to him mid-flow to "Tell them about the dream!" So he did.
Scholars place the speech in the same league as Lincoln's Gettysburg address, and Churchill's 'We shall never surrender'. King refers to the 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' part of the Gettysburg address in his speech.
The whole speech, not just the 'I have a dream' part is worth watching. You can do that here. It is just over 17 minutes long, but it is worth investing the time. If you want to skip to the I have a dream part, forward to about 12 minutes and watch from there.
For the full transcript of the speech, click here.
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