He didn’t call for a change in what America promised its people, but simply that the nation live up to that promise for everyone.
Nowhere was this tying together of the hopes of black Americans for justice with the overarching American ethic of liberty and justice for all more evident than in the famous “I have a dream” speech delivered 50 years ago this week at the Lincoln Memorial.
The late William Safire, in his book of great speeches titled “Lend Me Your Ears,” declared that King’s oration on Aug. 28, 1963, “did more to advance the cause of civil rights than any other speech or demonstration” in American history.
The reason was simple: It appealed directly to the conscience of white Americans, especially the political powerbrokers. And it did so not by attacking the American ethos, but by embracing it.
After listing the injustices of America’s treatment of its black citizens and rejecting the counsel of patience, King moved to the most memorably inspirational portion of his speech. “I still have a dream,” he said. And then a key sentence: “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Perhaps the most famous line of this remarkable 16-minute speech was this: “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.”
But the soaring climax took off from his recitation of the words of “America”: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty … from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
From there he took the “let freedom ring” and turned into a repetitive cadence naming “mountainsides” and other places across the nation, which came to a rip-roaring, audience-thundering conclusion with “let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi!”
The message was clear: America should live up to its promise, the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It was an affirmation of those American creeds, not a rejection of them. It demonstrated mightily that sometimes the most patriotic of voices can be those who call a nation to be better, to right its wrongs, to be true to what it professes to be.
If you were an irrational southern segregationist, such language – such appeals to Americans’ better instincts – wouldn’t move you. But the words struck at the conscience of the nation as a whole.
King knew who his audience was that day. Even though he was speaking directly to nearly 300,000 pro-civil rights participants in that day’s “March on Washington,” he was acutely aware that his broader audience was American public opinion. And he helped move it that day.
The words were powerful and eloquent enough, but King’s delivery and the structure and escalating emotional cadence of the speech – bearing all the marks of the black Baptist preacher that he was – make it an unforgettable experience to hear and see. We’ve had a video of it for years, and it’s just as moving today as it was those 50 years ago.
“When we let freedom ring … from every village and every hamlet, every state and every city, we will 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!”
Find a video, watch it and soar.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.