I send this remembrance out every year at this time. This and Timothy Leary and “Alice’s Restaurant”, the theme song of a generation that my Fellows know nothing about threaten to be forgotten, like Vietnam.
Let me bring back the vibrant remembrance because it’s important.
August 28, 1963 is the date of one of the most important and profound communications ever uttered by a human.
I have been a student of the 60s for most of my life, having lived and participated in much of 60s culture. I’ll spare you the details this time of my own experiences standing twenty feet from Dr. King during a speech in Atlanta in 1965, but if you have an interest, you can check out my first book on the subject:
The eBook version is free.
I lived in Georgia for a huge chunk of the civil rights years and I experienced and participated in much of it. Someday I’ll write the full book on it, but for the moment, just walk along with me. I’ll paint you the color commentary as we maneuver through the throngs toward he stage. I’ll interpret what’s going on from the vantage of a participant.
This day, August 28, 1963, produced the “I have a dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, a communication rivaled only by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at Gettysburg, PA, November, 19,1863, 100 years earlier. There are similarities and differences between the two speeches.
Like King, Lincoln explored the principles of human equality, but proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union necessary to frame principles thereof. But unlike the King speech, Lincoln’s mood is described by Ken Burns as a quiet, almost whispering matter-of-fact tone directed at no one in particular within the relatively small group present. At the time, it was virtually ignored. There is only one photograph from the Matthew Brady collection of Lincoln delivering the speech and it was from a distance.
The enormity of Lincoln’s speech is contained in the words, not the enunciation. Conversely, Dr. King’s speech occurred at the largest and most important civil rights demonstration in history and it was loud, covered by all three major TV networks. At the time of the demonstration, two thirds of the nations persons of color were not allowed to vote, attend integrated schools or use public facilities. 250,000 participants jamming the National Mall demanding civil rights legislation that was only to come two years later.
King took the stage just before noon with a prepared speech and began reading from it word for word. The text decried the fact that “fivescore years ago” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on July 1, 1863 freed the slaves in the ten states that were still members of the Confederate States of America, applying to a relatively small number, around 4 million slaves at the time.
But King goes on to lament: “100 years later the negro is still not free!” “Lincoln’s promises were a bad check and “we’re here to cash it!” Then about halfway through the text something important changes. King looks up at the crowd sensing an opportunity to pontificate extemporaneously, as he did frequently in other speeches. The text did not match the emotion required at the moment and King simply went with the flow as he felt it, acting more like a Baptist preacher on a roll than an interpreter of a prepared text.
King was the undisputed master of grabbing audiences and holding them spellbound. On this day, he found his theme and worked it mercilessly, alternately chastising the crowd then raring back smugly, basking in himself. His words did not exist in any text. They were created in his soul for the occasion and they flowed freely, some of the most important words ever uttered by a human, relegating King to every history book.
“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 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 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”.
At this point, King is totally consumed by unrelenting passion and running completely on maniac fervor. A shoddy analogy might be watching Neil Young play “The needle and the damage done” on The Johnny Cash variety show in 1971. Young doesn’t know where he is or who’s in the room. He doesn’t know where the chords come from. He’s completely consumed with the story he wants to tell and everything accompanying it flows like a wild river.
“I hit the city and
I lost my band.
I watched the needle
Take another man….
Gone, gone, the damage done……”
But I digress.
Dr. King continues:
“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………”
At this point King is close to emotional collapse. Those around him stare with slack jaws.
(Rising tonal cadence) “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”
King collapses into a chair, staring blankly at Ralph Abernathy. For a moment, the audience was shocked silent. John Kennedy allegedly turned to an aide and muttered: “Damn, this guy’s good”.
The “I have a dream” speech was he high point of his career, changing his public persona dramatically from a commonly perceived rabble-rousing jailbird to a fisher of men. King biographer David J. Garrow wrote that King had created a masterpiece on the fly like some kind of jazz musician.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I was finishing Jungle School in preparation for Vietnam on that day and I witnessed the pain and frustration.
Here is a youtube rendition of the speech. It MUST be watched and absorbed by anyone claiming to be an educated person. Take the time to watch the entire eleven minutes of this one of the most important speeches ever made by a human. Watch for the transition to extemporaneous passion.