Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, one of many American protests became the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, achieving worldwide acclaim with four simple words: “I have a dream.” The legend endures beyond memory from a dwindling number of witnesses, but no one alive that day anticipated its sweetly patriotic glow. Dr. Martin Luther King groaned under pressure, planning to say nothing like those four words. Bayard Rustin, a fabled pacifist in charge of logistics, prepared feverishly for the unknown. “If you want to organize anything,” he shouted to volunteers, “assume that everybody is absolutely stupid. And assume yourself that you’re stupid.” Some of Rustin’s helpers slapped together 80,000 cheese sandwiches. Others hauled twenty-one first-aid stations to outdoor spots along the stately National Mall.
The public girded for mayhem. NBC’s Meet the Press aired official predictions that it would be “impossible” for Negroes to petition in numbers without civic disorder. A preview in Life magazine surveyed Washington’s “worst case of invasion jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run.” The Kennedy Administration quietly deployed 4,000 riot troops near downtown, with 15,000 paratroopers on alert. A District of Columbia order banned liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition. Local hospitals stockpiled plasma and canceled elective surgery to save beds. Most federal agencies urged employees to stay home. Eighty percent of private business closed for the day. A week ahead, to be safe, Major League Baseball postponed not one but two home games for the Washington Senators.
Early arrivals confounded these apprehensions. One jaunty teenager wafted along Pennsylvania Avenue on roller skates, finishing a week-long journey from Chicago. Trainloads of pilgrims spilled from Union Station singing spirituals. A CBS camera mounted high in the Washington Monument showed a panorama that swelled crowd estimates upwards of 250,000. Bob Dylan strummed his new folk anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the first black “airline stewardess” led cheers for progress. Rustin herded dignitaries briskly through a long program, allowing emcee A. Philip Randolph to introduce the final speaker ahead of his appointed time.
King looked over a vast spectacle. He had failed this closing task once before from these steps at the Lincoln Memorial, with many of the same civil rights leaders present. Relatively few Americans noticed or remembered his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech, and King himself had pushed for a second chance to define the historical moment. “We are on a breakthrough,” he argued over wiretapped phone lines, startling aides accustomed to his caution, telling them to contact Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, about a “mass protest” for jobs and freedom. King aimed to build on national momentum spiraling from spring demonstrations in Birmingham, but he carried a burden described intimately there in his letter from jail: “…when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at a tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments…”
He opened his address by reaching back to Lincoln. “Five score years ago,” King paraphrased, “a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Against Lincoln’s fidelity to national purpose, he threw up a clanging image of deadbeat history. “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” King proclaimed, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” He said segregation stamped default on freedom’s core promise. Heartfelt voices cheered his raw illustrations along with his wishful hope not to find always that “the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Suddenly King balked. He could not bring himself to deliver his carefully written conclusion, beginning with the next line: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” He improvised a warning not to “wallow in the valley of despair.” Then he stalled for an ending. “I say to you today, my friends, and so,” said King, an orator dancing on edge, “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow–”
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Freedom in 50-Year Blinks
King hesitated before a unique nation that was young and yet also the world’s seasoned pioneer in freedom. The gist of our story fit within three 50-year blinks. In 1813, fighting England, President James Madison pronounced his country “the first genuine democracy engaged in a war since the ancients.” Madison, the Constitution’s chief framer, reluctantly accepted battle to show that a daring experiment in self-government could survive scornful empires abroad and dissent at home. (“It is high time we had a king,” grumbled one doubter in Washington.) Though a slaveholder himself, Madison condemned slavery, and he conceded from firsthand experience that slave power drove nearly every founding compromise of democratic principle. “Great as the evil is,” he lamented, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”
Fifty years later, in 1863, President Lincoln stood fast in the crucible of Madison’s fear. Preserving union through a war that doomed slavery, the Emancipator welcomed “a new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg, where he pledged “increased devotion” to the “unfinished work” of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson dismissed the Lincoln message at Gettysburg’s 50-year commemoration, branding it an “impertinence” to discuss what the Civil War meant. Wilson promptly segregated the federal government by race. On the day he took office, six women on horseback led 5,000 suffragists down Pennsylvania Avenue in classical costumes with breastplates and plumed helmets. Some 200,000 spectators ridiculed their plea for the female vote, heckling them for sex or supper instead, but news of this grand commotion sparked the novel concept of political drama in Washington by citizens at large.
Another fifty years brought King to pause at the Lincoln Memorial. Two World Wars made his United States a preeminent global power. Cherished claims of equal citizenship accommodated whites-only privilege down into public libraries and rest stops, on custom widely reinforced by criminal law. Earlier in 1963, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace vowed to uphold “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Women had won their suffrage amendment long ago, but Rustin’s marshals still diverted female leaders into a secondary freedom march along Independence Avenue. King, like Madison, saw no rational bridge across the chasms of empathy and perception. Figuratively, he closed his eyes.
A Song with Three Refrains
“–I still have a dream,” King resumed. “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…” He took flight extemporaneously on rhetoric ingrained in him but new to the huge national audience. His cadence rose gradually through nine dreams of racial justice into a tenth, spiritual vision from the prophet Isaiah. “I have a dream, that one day every valley shall be exalted,” he said, in pulsing delivery. “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,” King continued, pulling back from a glimpse of purified humanity. “This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith…” Like a jazz musician, he composed off this phrase a second riff on determination in pursuit of dreams. “With this faith,” it ended, “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.” King dramatized that prospect by reciting the first verse of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” from sweet liberty and pilgrims to “Let freedom ring.”
Quickening again, he pushed his baritone into high register. “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true,” King intoned. “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire…Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!” Eleven times he launched variations on this third refrain, embracing not only the treasured landscape but also fearsome bastions of white supremacy. “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi!” he shouted. “From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” His distinctive voice enveloped the words in a furnace of warring release, fusing ecstasy with anguish and disappointment with hope.
“And when this happens,” King cried out, “when we allow freedom to ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the 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!’”
Reactions Divide History
Most television viewers witnessed their first and last complete King speech that day. “He’s damned good,” President Kennedy remarked at the White House. The New York Times hailed the “Peroration by Dr. King” in one of five front-page stories about the March. Life Magazine, with Rustin pictured nobly on the cover, gushed over scenes of “beatific calm” in a photo essay featuring “Negro Gothic” couples in crisp jeans, “reminiscent of [the] famous Grant Wood painting.” To excuse their prior alarms, Rustin teased, reporters now lionized him as a dark Caribbean wizard whose tricks made scary Negroes nice enough for afternoon tea.
Not everyone shared the admiration and relief. FBI Headquarters produced a hostile assessment that “in light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday, he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders.” This distinction moved Director J. Edgar Hoover to approve a secret FBI directive on King: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
Other appraisals ranged from conflicted discovery to confession. Newsweek Magazine compiled a special issue after the March, asking, “How much equality is the white man willing to grant the Negro?” Its polls found that eighty percent of white citizens, including sixty percent of Southerners, said minorities were denied fairness and basic rights, but seventy-four percent also believed “Negroes are moving too fast.”
NBC televised a three-hour news special, American Revolution ’63, in prime time without commercials. Americans sensed “their lives are being altered forever,” said host Frank McGee. His composure slipped in regret of commentaries that had patronized King’s bus boycotters as “teenagers demanding to stay out after 9:30.” News anchor Chet Huntley starkly recalled his Montana childhood. “We were a frontier people,” he said. “…We never really looked with honesty at Negroes the way we examined the anatomy of a grasshopper, say, or speculated on the after-hours life of a teacher. We looked, but we had been told what to see.”
For balance, the NBC documentary presented hardline segregationists. “You are witnessing one more chapter in what has been termed the television revolution,” said Mississippi’s Governor Ross Barnett. Charging that the media “publicized and dramatized the race issue far beyond its relative importance,” he formulated—ironically on network television—a “smoke screen” theory of phony news concocted to help King’s demonstrators and unscrupulous politicians. “The real goal of the conspiracy,” Barnett told NBC viewers, “is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington.”
No one adapted Barnett’s premise more adroitly than George Wallace. By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns. “We have shaken the eyeteeth of every liberal in the country,” he said.
King’s Dream at 50
Now we come to a 50-year blink for the 1963 March on Washington. This will be only the fourth such span since 1813, as noted, which offers a compact perspective on defining themes in American history. King’s “dream” speech, along with the bus protest started by Rosa Parks, is remembered in school lessons for children here and abroad. His statue stands now across the Tidal Basin from Thomas Jefferson, not far from the Lincoln Memorial. Of the official national holidays, only the one for him honors by name a leader who never sought or held public office. King served a prophet’s role. He made urgent the simple but profound challenge that runs through American heritage. Putting one foot in the Constitution and the other in Scriptures, he refined an ecumenical standard of equal votes and equal souls.
Oratory alone cannot explain King’s impact. He spoke for a nonviolent citizens’ movement that engaged representatives of the nation, in his words, to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” Sacrifice amplified the speeches, and most bloodshed in the civil rights era followed the 1963 March, beginning with the grisly church bombing eighteen days later that killed four Birmingham girls. Ku Klux Klan murders came hard upon the Kennedy assassination, from three students lynched in Mississippi to a Boston pastor beaten to death on a voting-rights march in Selma, and a dozen more martyrs preceded King himself in 1968.
By then the movement had opened stubborn gates to freedom. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 reduced not only segregation’s rank injustice but also a paralyzing stigma on the white South, leading to Sunbelt prosperity. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 stripped white supremacy from democracy’s bedrock franchise, enabling the first two-party competition in the South since the Civil War. Laws that criminalized racial intermarriage in most states fell void, along with many state laws that curtailed or prohibited jury service by women.
Such blatant restrictions have become difficult for new generations to remember, or believe, but female students had been barred from many professions and most prominent colleges, let alone from the military academies. Segregated sports persisted beyond King’s life, as the 1969 Texas Longhorns were the last all-white college football team to win a national championship. The notion of female rabbis, which was preposterous for two thousand years of rabbinic Judaism, became commonplace soon after the civil rights struggle. Collateral citizens’ movements advanced marginalized causes from disabled persons to the natural environment. Homosexual people emerged, beyond the imagination of King’s dreamers, from closeted terror to legal security approaching gay marriage. Negroes shifted collective identity to black people, then African Americans, and the nation elected one of them President of the United States.
President Barack Obama stands at a pinnacle of breathtaking change since 1963, but he has scarcely escaped an undertow from the past. Like King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the president himself remains “constantly at a tip-toe stance.” It is a delicate matter for him to mention race at all, no matter how much it might inform his experience. Recently, when he expressed qualified identification with Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager tracked and killed with impunity in Florida, criticism erupted that President Obama was injecting himself and racial friction into matters best left alone. The New York Times quoted a complaint that his remarks betrayed “the great achievement of our society, the possibility of not talking about race.”
This uproar exposes a dangerous wish. To silence race collapses American history into a fairy tale, blotting out the central drama of democratic progress. The original framers of the Constitution boldly designed horizontal ties across sensitive barriers of hierarchy, region, and belief. Race has tested them ever since, and only subterfuge or willful amnesia can deny its residual force. Race flipped the century-old “solid South” from Democratic to Republican after 1964. Dragnets now search predominantly black teenagers to confiscate guns in New York, while zealous coalitions elsewhere stockpile guns into predominantly white hands—all professing a race-neutral public safety. Partisan gridlock is racial by the numbers. The House of Representatives has packed itself into Democratic districts that average twice the non-white population compared with Republican districts that average fifty percent more white people. One national party tends to be skittish about race. The other transmutes latent fear and distrust into a pervasive hostility toward government.
King’s “dream” speech abides. Contrary to popular impression then, and lingering insistence today, he did not win favor by promising that African Americans would behave like white people. He said nearly the opposite, quite plainly. His ringing conclusion invited polyglot America—“all God’s children”—to join hands and sing a Negro spiritual, so that everyone for that moment could share inspirations forged during slavery. King invoked a larger patriotism in which people of every stripe reach from tip-toe stance across divisions between them. Free citizenship requires meeting each other half-way to build ties of comfort and strength. King’s burden was not the tip-toe stance itself but flatfooted disregard on the other side. His reward was small miracles of common purpose that made “movement” the watchword of national politics.
Now the watchword has atrophied to “spin,” cynical and stationary. The glory of freedom is still there, however, in far better shape than our fractured discourse suggests. President Obama should speak more from his tip-toe stance about race in our national journey. Spasms of objection can give way to more balanced history, but we all inherit the responsibility to make it so. King and his colleagues leave us a patriotic lesson that every citizen can become a modern Founder.
Taylor Branch wrote a prize-winning historical trilogy on the civil rights era, beginning with Parting the Waters (1988). His recent books are The Cartel (2011), about NCAA college sports, and The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013). He lives in Baltimore with his wife, Christy Macy.