Every year, we pay tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with school assemblies, community programs and – to the delight of students and teachers alike – a national holiday. Yet how many of us directly connect Dr. King’s heroism and accomplishments to his faith in – and use of – the five freedoms of the First Amendment?
Consider the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the iconic rally that introduced King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to white America – he had delivered those lines to black audiences many times before – and produced the most memorable petition for a redress of grievances in the nation’s history. Nearly every American is familiar with King’s speech that day. Many of us were asked to memorize it as students. But few if any of us were also taught about that day – and the Civil Rights Movement – in the specific context of our founding principles as a nation.
At the time, Congress was wrestling with whether or not to pass President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation, and young and old people across the country were being jailed for peacefully assembling to protest the South’s policies of institutional racism. And although African American leaders had talked for more than twenty years about staging a national march for civil rights in Washington, one that could harness all the energy and persuasive power of the movement thus far, the decision to have the march on August 28, 1963, was not finalized until July 2; that meant march officials had less than two months to coordinate, transport, organize, and prepare for the thousands – maybe even tens of thousands – of marchers they expected.
The organizers rushed to plan the march so it could occur while Congress was still debating the president’s civil rights program. They also wanted the march to coincide with the centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, the January 1, 1863 declaration by President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the nation’s third bloody year of civil war, “that all persons held as slaves” within the Southern states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Almost a hundred years since that war’s end, African Americans were still waiting for Lincoln’s words to be fulfilled. Indeed, although the formal institution of slavery had long since passed, laws discriminating against African Americans had immediately replaced it. In response, march spokesmen promised that the event would be a mass demonstration for freedom, and that the protesters would, peacefully, assemble at and around the Lincoln Memorial. The goal was to pressure Congress to pass Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation and to establish 1963 as the year racial discrimination in America ended for good.
Concerned about a backlash in Congress, Kennedy administration officials expressed reservations. Speaking to a Washington Post reporter, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sympathized fully with the cause and supported the marchers’ right to petition the government, but wondered if the march would achieve its desired result. “I certainly think at the present time Congress should have the right to debate and discuss legislation without that kind of pressure,” he said. Meanwhile, President Kennedy met privately with the leaders of the march to express his concern that it might damage the chances for passage of the civil rights bill.
According to John Lewis, the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, at 25, the youngest of the civil rights leaders , the President said: ‘We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol.’ Publicly, however, the President praised the planned march as a “peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances”–with strong emphasis on the word “peaceful.”
In the weeks leading up to the national march, newspapers ran small stories about violent clashes between civil rights protesters and local authorities in different parts of the country. While white officers wielded clubs and occasionally fired shots, black protesters were arrested by the hundreds – sometimes after demonstrating peacefully, sometimes after throwing bricks or breaking windows.
Meanwhile, the prospect of tens of thousands of black protesters in the nation’s capital–at a time in the nation’s history when racial stereotypes were deeply grounded in ignorance and fear–was enough to prompt some rather extraordinary measures. For the first time since the days of Prohibition, Washington, D.C., banned liquor sales. Fifteen thousand paratroopers in nearby North Carolina were placed on alert. And white journalists peppered black commentators with questions such as, “What is it that Negroes really want?” The African American psychologist Kenneth B. Clark did not shy away from the question. The black community, he told The New York Times three days before the march, wants to “give vitality to the democratic promise by using the machinery of democracy–the courts and the constitutional guarantees of freedom–to press relentlessly toward unqualified equality.”
Like Clark, the leaders of the march understood that the best way to counter the general population’s willful ignorance of racial injustice was by utilizing each of the First Amendment’s five freedoms to appeal to the nation’s conscience. They also realized the fight could not be seen as theirs alone; they had to demonstrate that all Americans had a stake in their success. Consequently, at a press conference in New York on August 18, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress, called on American Jews to join the march. In so doing, he urged, American Jews would also be protecting their own freedom, “for we have long known that no group is secure unless the rights of all are safeguarded.” On August 23, the Catholic Bishops of the United States urged in a joint pastoral letter that Catholics get involved as well, declaring that the conscience of the nation itself was on trial.
That spirit of brotherhood was reflected in the final program of speakers for the march, which began with an invocation from the Catholic archbishop of Washington and included remarks from the clerk of the United Presbyterian Church and the president of the Synagogue Council of America. “America must not become a nation of onlookers,” urged Rabbi Prinz, who was also on the program. “America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.” Prinz’s words reached thousands of television viewers across the country, who tuned in to see images of white, brown, and black faces at the massive assembly. ABC and NBC even broke away from their regularly scheduled afternoon soap operas to join CBS and broadcast the program in its entirety.
The march neared its conclusion when the final speaker – thirty-four-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. – approached the podium. By 1963, King’s eloquence and charisma had led him to become the person most identified with the goals of the campaign for civil rights. By the time he rose to speak, police estimated that the crowd had grown to more than 200,000 people – far surpassing even the most optimistic estimates of the organizers.
Although he had spoken to countless black audiences over the years, most white Americans – including President Kennedy, who was watching the march on TV – had never heard King deliver a complete speech. Aware of the importance of the opportunity before him, King stayed up late into the night before the march, working on the language of his remarks. By the time he put down his pencil, however, he felt the speech was not his best work. Emotionally powerful in some places while politically subdued in others, King’s prepared remarks reflected his conscious decision, given the audience and occasion, to sacrifice some passion in order to achieve the march’s ultimate goal – the passage of Kennedy’s civil rights legislation.
King approached the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looked out at the sea of faces silently awaiting his words, and began – still with mixed feelings, one would imagine – to deliver his remarks. Initially, the young preacher followed his prepared speech word for word. But toward the end, the spectacle of the moment, the history of the location, and the historic promises of the man whose marble likeness towered behind him prompted King to wander off the script.
As he began searching for a different note on which to conclude, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting just behind King on the platform, asked for the refrain of a speech she knew he had given many times before. “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”
So he did. “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. 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: ‘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 a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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.
The rest is history. Yet despite progress, including passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other subsequent changes in the law, much of King’s vision for America remains unfulfilled today. Indeed, despite King’s plea to his fellow Americans to “lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” racism and prejudice continue to plague the United States. For an afternoon, however, the image of thousands of peaceful protesters stretched out before a solitary, passionate young preacher gave Americans a glimpse of what Lincoln – the Great Emancipator—once termed “the better angels of our nature.” The New York Times called it “the greatest assembly for redress of grievances in the capital’s history.” And President Kennedy, in a press statement following the march, spoke about the hope the march had embodied: “What is different today is the intensified and widespread public awareness of the need to move forward in achieving these objectives – objectives which are older than the Nation,” he said. “The cause of 20 million Negroes has been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation’s shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significant is the contribution to all mankind.”
(This story originally appeared in the book First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America.)