Chapter 20: March on Washington
There can be no doubt, even in the true
depths of the most prejudiced minds, that the August 28 March on
Washington was the most significant and moving demonstration for
freedom and justice in all the history of this country.
In the summer of 1963 a great shout for freedom
reverberated across the land. It was a shout from the hearts of
a people who had been too patient, too long. It was a shout which
arose from the North and from the South. It was a shout which reached
the ears of a President and stirred him to unprecedented statesmanship.
It was a shout which reached the halls of Congress and brought back
to the legislative chambers a resumption of the Great Debate. It
was a shout which awoke the consciences of millions of white Americans
and caused them to examine themselves and to consider the plight
of twenty million black disinherited brothers. It was a shout which
brought men of God down out of their
pulpits, where they had been preaching only a Sunday kind of love,
out into the streets to practice a
Ivlonday kind of militancy. Twenty million strong, militant, marching
blacks, flanked by legions of white allies, were volunteers in an
army which had a will and a purpose-the realization of a new and
The shout burst into the
open in Birmingham. The contagion of the will to be free, the spreading
virus of the victory which was proven possible when black people
stood and marched together with love
in their hearts instead of hate, faith instead of fear-that virus
spread from Birmingham across the land and a summer of blazing discontent
gave promise of a glorious autumn of racial justice. The Negro revolution
was at hand.
Birmingham had made it
clear that the fight of the Negro could be won if he moved that
fight out to the sidewalks and the streets, down
to the city halls and the city jails and-if necessary-into the martyred
heroism of a Medgar Evens. The Negro revolution in the South
had come of age. It was mature. It was courageous. It was epic-and
it was in the American tradition, a much delayed salute to the Bill
of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and
the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Negro in the North
came to the shocking realization that the
subtle and hidden discrimination of the North was as humiliating
and vicious as the obvious and overt sins of the South. In the South,
the shout was being heard for public rights nondiscrimination in
hotels, motels, schools, parks. In the North, the shout was raised
for private advancement the elimination of de facto school segregation,
the wiping out of housing and job discrimination. In Chicago, Illinois,
intensified situations involving residential bias came to the fore.
Seen in perspective, the
summer of 1963 was historic because it witnessed the first offensive
in history launched by Negroes along a broad front. The heroic but
spasmodic and isolated slave revolts of the antebellum South had
fused, more than a century later, into a simultaneous,
massive assault against segregation. And the virtues so long regarded
as the exclusive property of the white South gallantry, loyalty,
and pride-had passed to the Negro demonstrators in the heat of the
In assessing the summer's
events, some observers have tended diminish the achievement by treating
the demonstrations as an end in themselves. The heroism of the march,
the drama of the confrontation, became in their minds the total
accomplishment. It is true that these
elements have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains
in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the
beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the
soil. A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt.
A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.
The summer of 1963 was
a revolution because it changed the face of America. Freedom was
contagious. Its fever boiled in nearly one thousand cities, and
by the time it had passed its peak, many thousands of lunch counters,
hotels, parks, and other places of public accommodation had become
The sound of the explosion in Birmingham reached all the way to Washington, where the Kennedy administration, which had firmly declared that civil rights legislation would have to be shelved for 1963, hastily reorganized its priorities and placed a strong civil rights bill at the top of the top of the Congressional calendar.
The thundering events of
the summer required an appropriate climax. The dean of Negro leaders,
A. Philip Randolph, whose gifts of imagination and tireless militancy
had for decades dramatized the civil rights struggle, once again
provided the uniquely suitable answer. He proposed a March on Washington
to unite in one luminous action all of the forces along the far flung
It took daring and boldness to embrace the idea. The Negro community was firmly united in demanding a redress of grievances, but it was divided on tactics. It had demonstrated its ability to organize skillfully in single communities, but there was no precedent for a convocation of national scope and gargantuan size. Complicating the situation were innumerable prophets of doom who feared that the slightest incidence of violence would alienate Congress and destroy all hope of legislation. Even without disturbances, they were afraid that inadequate support by Negroes would reveal weaknesses that were better concealed.
The debate on the proposal
neatly polarized positions. Those with faith in the Negro's abilities,
endurance, and discipline welcomed the challenge. On the other side
were the timid, confused, and uncertain friends, along with those
who had never believed in the Negro's capacity to organize anything
of significance. The conclusion was
never really in doubt, because the powerful momentum of the revolutionary
summer had swept aside all opposition.
Even some friends of our
cause had honest fears about our coming. The President of the United
States publicly worried about the wisdom of such a project, and
congressmen from states in which liberality supposedly prevailed
broadly hinted that such a march would
have no effect on their deliberative process. The sense of purpose
which pervaded preparations for the march had an infectious quality
that made liberal whites and leaders of great religious organizations
realize that the oncoming march could not be stopped. Like some
swelling chorus promising to burst into glorious song, the endorsement
and pledges of participation began.
Just as Birmingham had
caused President Kennedy to completely reverse his priorities with
regard to seeking legislation, so the spirit behind the ensuing
march caused him to become a strong ally on its execution. The President's
reversal was characterized by a generous and handsome new interest
not only in seeing the march take place but in the hope that it
would have a solid impact on the Congress.
Washington is a city of
spectacles. Every four years imposing Presidential inaugurations
attract the great and the mighty. Kings, prime ministers, heroes,
and celebrities of every description have been feted there
for more than 150 years. But in its entire glittering history,
Washington had never seen a spectacle of the
size and grandeur that assembled there on August
28, 1963. Among the nearly
who journeyed that day to the capital, there were many dignitaries
and many celebrities, but the stirring emotion came from the mass
of ordinary people who stood in majestic dignity as witnessed to
their single minded determination to achieve democracy in their
They came from almost every
state in the union; they came in", every form of transportation;
they gave up from one to three days' pay
plus the cost of transportation, which for many was a heavy
sacrifice. They were good-humored and relaxed, yet disciplined and
thoughtful. They applauded their leaders
generously, but the leaders, in their own hearts, applauded their
audience. Many a Negro speaker that day had his respect for his
own people deepened as he felt the strength of their dedication.
The enormous multitude was the living, beating heart of an indefinitely
noble movement. It was an army without guns, but not without strength.
It was an army into which no one had to be drafted. It was white,
and Negro, and of all ages. It had adherents of every faith, members
of every class, every profession, every political party, united
by a single ideal. It was a fighting army, but no one could mistake
that its most powerful weapon was love.
One significant element
of the march was the participation of white churches. Never before
had they been so fully, so enthusiastically, so directly involved.
One writer observed that the march "brought the country's three
major religious faiths closer than any other issue in the nation's
peacetime history." I venture to say that no single factor which
emerged in the summer of 1963 gave so much momentum to the on-rushing
revolution and to its aim of touching the conscience of the nation
as the decision of the religious leaders of this country to defy
tradition and become an integral part of the quest of the Negro
for his rights.
In unhappy contrast, the
National Council of the AFL-CIO declined to support the march and
adopted a position of neutrality. A number of international unions,
however, independently declared their support, and were present
in substantial numbers. In addition, hundreds of local unions threw
their full weight into the effort.
We had strength because
there were so many of us, representing so many more. We had dignity
because we knew our cause was just. We had no anger, but we had
a passion-a passion for freedom. So
we stood there, facing Mr. Lincoln
and facing ourselves and our own destiny and facing the future and
prepared my speech partially in New York City and partially in Washington,
D.C. The night of the twenty-seventh I got in to Washington about
ten o'clock and went to the hotel. I thought through what I would
say, and that took an hour or so. Then I put the outline together,
and I guess I finished it about midnight. I did not finish the complete
text of my speech until 4:00 A.M.
on the morning of August 28.
Along with other participant speakers, I was requested by the national March on Washington Committee to furnish the press liaison with a summary or excerpts of my intended speech by the late afternoon or evening of August 27. But, inasmuch as I had not completed my speech by the evening before the march, I did not forward any portion of my remarks which I had prepared until the morning of August 28.
I started out reading the
speech, and read it down to a point. The audience's response was
wonderful that day, and all of a sudden this thing came to me. The
previous June, following a peaceful assemblage of thousands of people
through the streets of downtown Detroit, Michigan, I had delivered
a speech in Cobo Hall, in which I used the phrase "I have a dream."
I had used it many times before. and I just felt that I wanted to
use it here. I don't know why. I hadn't thought about it before
the speech. I used the phrase, and at that point I just turned aside
from the manuscript altogether and didn't come back to it.
I am happy to join with
you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration
for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago,
a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed
the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great
beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared
in the flames of withering injustice. It cam as a joyous daybreak
to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years
later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the
the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation
and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro
lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean
of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still
languished in the corners of American society and finds himself
an exile in his own land.
And so we've come here
today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we've come
to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of
our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and
the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory
note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise
that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed
the unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
We have also come to
this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling
or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time
to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise
from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path
of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands
of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the
time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
There will be neither
rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship
rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to
shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice
But there is something
that I must say to my people, who stand on the
warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process
gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful
deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking
from the cup of bitterness
and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane
of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative
protest to degenerate into physical violence.
Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting
physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy
which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust
of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced
by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny
is tied up with our destiny. They have come
to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that
we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.
There are those who
are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?"
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of
the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied
as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot
gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the
cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility
is from a smaller ghetto to
a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children
are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs
stating "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro
in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has
nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will
not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness
like a mighty stream.
Go back to Mississippi,
go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia,
go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern
cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends: so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, 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 slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that
one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering
with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,
will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that
my four little 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!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that
one day every valley shall be exalted, 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. This
is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith
we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of
With this faith we will
be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a
beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith 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.
This will be the day,
this will be the day when all of God's children will
be able to sing with new meaning: "My country 'tis of thee, sweet
land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land
of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!"
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring
from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
If anyone had questioned
how deeply the summer's activities had penetrated the consciousness
of white America, the answer was evident in the treatment accorded
the March on Washington by all the media of communication. Normally
Negro activities are the object of attention in the press only when
they are likely to lead to some dramatic outbreak, or possess some
bizarre quality. The march was the first organized Negro operation
that was accorded respect and coverage commensurate with its importance.
The millions who viewed it on television
were seeing an event historic not only because of the subject but
because it was being brought into their homes.
Millions or white Americans, for the first time, had a clear, long look at Negroes engaged in a serious occupation. For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comments which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization, and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants. If the press had expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed. A great deal has been said about a dialogue between Negro and white. Genuinely to achieve it requires that all the media of communications open their channels wide as they did on that radiant August day.
As television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the border oceans, everyone who believed in man's capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race. And every dedicated American could be proud that a dynamic experience of democracy in the nation's capital had been made visible to the world.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.