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 slave-owners 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 dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour 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 little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream toady!
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 mountains of despair a stone of hope.
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 a 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. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that 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!”
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Junior, a 34 year old Baptist pastor and civil rights leader, was joined by 250,000 of his fellow Americans and delivered his speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, USA, to commemorate the centenary of President Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ to free African-Americans, which made the removal of slavery an explicit goal. His aim was to argue that the freedoms promised by President Abraham Lincoln to the newly-emancipated African-Americans never really materialised and encourage all Americans to re-commit themselves to the Emancipation Proclamation’s original promise. This was at a time when although African Americans had been given legal citizenship they remained second-class citizens. Many continued to face legal, political, social and economic discrimination and segregation, from businesses and government in places like buses, libraries, swimming pools, lunch counters and hotels. They faced extreme poverty and in some places they were prevented from voting through intimidation and violence.
The speech came amid increasingly intense battles to end segregation in the South – where civil rights activists’ commitment to the principles of nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King were severely put to the test. The March on Washington was organized by hundreds of union and labour and religious organizations, who worked to fundraise for the march calling for ‘jobs and freedom’. The March was supported by the presence of Hollywood celebrities. It was strongly opposed, however, by the US government.
It is estimated that around 75% of the 250,000 participants were black while the rest were white. Most White Americans had never seen such a large demonstration organised by Black Americans with a message of tolerance, peace and determination.
The march was one of the largest political rallies for human rights, civil rights and economic rights in the history of the United States and was critical in assisting the passing of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965, which outlawed discrimination in every part of American life, including the ballot box.
The speech proved to be an important tipping point for American civil rights. It has gone on to resound throughout the world – in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America, as an appeal for racial justice and equality. Fifty years later, it has a relevant message for us today.