It was one of the most powerful and passionate displays of oratory of modern times, a stirring call for freedom and equality that continues to resonate and inspire around the world 50 years later.
The address that Martin Luther King delivered from the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on August 28 1963 is still known simply as the Dream Speech, after the “I have a dream” phrase that he repeated, with his preacher’s cadence, to paint his hopes for a future of racial equality.
Yet he only added what was to be the most memorable and moving part of the address while he was speaking in front of more than 250,000 people, explains the man who drafted the first version of the speech.
Dr King’s lawyer, adviser and friend, Clarence Jones, was standing 50ft behind the podium when he heard a woman’s voice rise up as King paused between lines. “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream,” urged Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer who had delivered a spiritual from the stage earlier in the afternoon.
Ahead of him, Mr Jones saw his friend move aside his prepared remarks, lean forward, grip the lectern with both hands and look out across the sea of humanity stretching around the reflecting pool and down the Washington Mall in front of him.
“His whole body language had changed, and he had morphed into his Baptist preacher stance,” recalls Jones, 82. “I turned to the person standing next to me and I said: ‘These people don’t know it, but they are about to go to church.’ ”
The clergyman and civil rights leader drew from both biblical scriptures and the Founding Fathers’ words in the US Constitution, to spell out his hopes that America would put the evils of segregation and discrimination behind it to become a land of freedom and equality. It was, however, his rousing, improvised riff on the “dream” theme that lived on in the memory.
Yet what King would say at the march was not even the primary concern as he holed up in Jones’s house in the Bronx in the weeks beforehand to prepare for what would be the biggest gathering that America had ever witnessed.
“The logistics were so time-consuming that the speech was not a priority for us,” Jones recalls. “We were still working on a version when we were in Washington the night before the march. Martin said he would go to his room and seek the advice of the Lord.
“That speech confirmed that Martin was the moral compass of the nation. It was a call to the collective conscience of America. He was saying that we can be a better country than this.”
That warm August day, the crowds, perhaps a quarter of them white, poured into the nation’s capital by bus, train and car from across America, from the poorest cotton-share-cropping districts of the South and the slums of the North, to affluent enclaves of New England. The march also attracted a slew of celebrities, including Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Some flew in despite being “advised” on the orders of FBI director J Edgar Hoover to withdraw support from the “Communist-organised” march.
Many were nervous as they arrived, fearful of warnings that the protest would turn into a riot. There were dark predictions that white women would be raped, government buildings attacked, shops looted and burned. Instead, America witnessed a stunning and peaceful demonstration of racial unity, a defining moment in the civil rights movement.
The year was the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery, with the Emancipation Proclamation that ordered the freeing of slaves in the Confederacy. A century later, protests were sweeping the same Southern states, against the Jim Crow laws that forced blacks to live as second-class citizens.
Much was soon to change with the end of state-enforced segregation – “a monumental achievement,” says Mr Jones. Before the end of the tumultuous decade, King was dead, his assassination in 1968 sparking riots that convulsed the country.
In a landmark that not even the most ambitious dreamers in 1963 could have imagined, an African-American was elected president in 2008. Now into his second term, Barack Obama has a framed programme of the March on Washington on the wall of the Oval Office.
The progress has been striking. But, as tens of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the march, the talk was as much about unfinished business as celebrating a momentous day.
For one thing, the full name of the 1963 gathering was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a title that emphasised the organisers’ focus on economic as well as racial equality. For all the strides of the intervening half-century, the so-called “opportunity gap” between races remains stubbornly wide, with blacks almost twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
From the same steps where Dr King spoke, Mr Obama will address a “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony on Wednesday, alongside Bernice King, the clergywoman daughter of Dr King.
At yesterday’s rally, those present included veterans of 1963, advocates from women’s, gay and Hispanic groups, and the parents of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager whose killing plunged the country into a fresh bout of soul-searching about race.
The unarmed 17-year-old was shot dead by a neighbourhood volunteer during a confrontation as he walked home from a grocery store through a gated community in Florida. The acquittal on self-defence grounds of his killer, George Zimmerman, who is half-white, half-Hispanic, sparked national protests over racial profiling. Zimmerman said he had identified the teen as suspicious because he was young and black and wearing a hoodie.
Despite President Obama’s own heritage as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black Kenyan man, he has spoken only sparingly about race. But shortly after Mr Zimmerman’s acquittal, he made a telling foray into that charged world by trying to explain the reality of life for African-Americans, and particularly young black men, in America today.
“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me,” he said.
“And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me, at least before I was a senator.
“There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting in an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
Mr Obama is, of course, renowned for his own skills as an orator, and he has drawn on King’s words before, most notably co-opting the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” to explain his rationale for seeking the nation’s top job in 2008. But by choosing to stand on the same spot to address the anniversary commemoration, he is inviting split-screen comparisons of the two speeches.
“It’s a bold decision,” says Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, who will also attend Wednesday’s events.
“When Dr King spoke, it was the perfect union of the man, the message and the moment. The cadences and rhythms of black churches were something that in those days many Americans had not heard. He delivered a speech for the moment and for the ages.
“But those same words remind us today of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. He set a standard against which we can still mark ourselves. How far have we come; how far is there still to go; how wide does the opportunity gap remain between white Americans and people of colour?”
Keli Goff is a writer and social commentator on the post-civil rights generation, a group whose political influence she examined in her book,Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence.
“I believe that Dr King would be incredibly pleased to see how much of his dream has become reality. Little black boys and girls and little white boys and girls can indeed join hands as brothers and sisters.
“But he would also know how far there is to go. There is still a huge measure of class inequality in our society and that class divide is still very much based on racial lines.”
Clarence Jones, now a scholar in residence at Stanford University, has also been reflecting on how far the dream has come as he prepares for Wednesday’s commemoration.
“Yes, an African-American president is part of the dream, but no, that doesn’t mean that the dream is completely realised. There are cracks in that dream of achieving equality, particularly economic rights, but that does not undermine the dream.”
Bernice King, who was only five when her father was assassinated, agrees. “Struggle is a never-ending process,” she says, quoting her mother, Coretta Scott King. “We are still fighting for freedom.”
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