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All week long, Americans are commemorating the anniversary of one of the most influential speeches in history, a speech that set the stage for sweeping changes in American society—and a speech given by a BU alum.
It was 50 years ago this Wednesday when 250,000 people converged on the nation’s capital to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Their goal was to push for full civil and economic rights for African Americans. People arrived by bus and by car, by train and by plane, many traveling for days—and at great personal risk—to be part of what would be the largest peaceful demonstration in US history.
Despite fears that the crowd might turn violent (the Pentagon had 19,000 troops on hand in the suburbs, and in anticipation of casualties, area hospitals canceled elective surgeries for the day), the huge throng remained orderly as participants marched from the Washington Monument to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There they listened as civil rights and religious leaders called for passage of civil rights legislation, an immediate end to school segregation, and the implementation of a $2-an-hour minimum wage.
Today, most of the day’s speeches have been forgotten, but one—the last of the day—affected the course of history.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) rose to stand before the bank of microphones, few could have imagined that the words he was about to speak would resonate five decades later. King, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reportedly did not know until the day before what he would include in his speech. He began by recalling that 100 years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and he reminded the crowd, and the millions of Americans listening on radio and watching on television (all three networks carried the proceedings live), that the country’s founding fathers had based the Declaration of Independence on the premise that all men have the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King went on to speak of the promissory note still owed to African Americans, saying that the country had delivered a bad check, marked insufficient funds. His voice soaring, he told the crowd that it was time to “cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
It was a good speech, but something remarkable happened, transforming it into a speech for the ages. At one point King reportedly feared he was losing his audience, and at that moment, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson whispered to him, urging him to tell the crowd “about the dream.” King took her advice. He went off-text, and for the next six minutes his words held millions of Americans spellbound. Eight times, he repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” most poignantly when he spoke of having “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.”
King’s plea for an American dream that would extend to all citizens, regardless of race, is credited with helping make possible the passage, one year later, of the landmark Civil Rights Act, followed in 1965 by passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Now, 50 years later, the nation celebrates the anniversary of King’s iconic speech with a series of events, highlighted by an address by President Barack Obama, to be delivered on Wednesday, August 28. Like King, Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, part of what is being billed as the Let Freedom Ring ceremony. Bells are scheduled to ring out in cities and towns across the nation that day at 3 p.m., commemorating the moment King began speaking.
To mark the anniversary, Bostonia reached out to faculty, staff, and students, asking them to talk about what King’s speech means to them today. Their answers are a reminder that his words continue to inspire, continue to serve as a source of hope for some, of solace for others.