It’s 30 minutes before midnight on June 1, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. is on the phone.
For eight long years, ever since the Montgomery bus boycott with Rosa Parks, he’s been the nation’s most visible civil rights leader. Freedom Riders, sit-ins, voting rights volunteers spreading out across the South. The waves of terrorist violence. His house has been bombed. He’s been arrested. He wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” two months ago.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” he wrote. And: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Now hundreds of protests are taking place across the country. Now the wildfire is spreading. In the phrase he will make famous, the fierce urgency is indeed now.
“We are on a breakthrough,” he’s telling fellow organizers in this conference call, as recounted from FBI surveillance tapes in Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.”
“We need a mass protest,” he’s saying. The place? Washington.
Less than two weeks later, a white supremacist assassinates Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader in Mississippi, in his driveway.
Now the wildfire is roaring. The “mass protest” King envisioned spawns into the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The date selected is impossibly early: Aug. 28. It’s crazy. It’s less than three months away. And yet somehow organizers, anchored by union official A. Philip Randolph and veteran activist Bayard Rustin, pull together a march of some 250,000 people from across the nation — the vast majority of them Black — creating one of the most moving, consequential moments in American history.
“Freedom Now,” read the hats of many marchers who ride by bus for hours to get here. Spirits are high. Men wear suits. Women wear pearls. Everyone laughs, a little giddy. The heat stays in the low 80s; there’s a slight breeze. Star power? How about Josephine Baker, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Odetta?
King’s concluding speech of the rally, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a sea of listeners stretching as far back as the eye can see, is “I Have a Dream.” It is one of the dazzling moments in American rhetorical history, certainly one that led to his Nobel Peace Prize the next year. It is preserved in the Library’s National Recording Registry.
That afternoon, he seems to sense the moment even as it is happening:
“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,” are some of the first words he says.
Many parts of that day are preserved at the Library. The papers of Rustin. The papers of Randolph, who was the first speaker of the day. The papers of Rosa Parks. The papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Those of legendary activist James Forman. The work by photographer Warren K. Leffler. And so many others.
They all document an amazing accomplishment, these peaceful crowds, this energy.
But it is not a perfect day.
Parks doesn’t get to speak; no woman is allowed any significant time on stage during the main program. James Baldwin, the eloquent novelist, the gay icon, the man who has spoken truth to power in any forum anywhere, was not invited to speak for fears he will be too incendiary. Malcolm X has derided the proceedings as a “circus,” too inclusive of too many other groups and causes. President Kennedy, who is sympathetic to the cause, meets with King and others after the march in the Oval Office, but does not speak at the event and doesn’t stand next to King in the group photo. (This may be the clearest example of how dangerous King was seen to be at the time.)
Still, the magic. It can’t be denied.
King had given variations of his “I Have a Dream” speech before, but this time, broadcast on national television, it seems injected into the national consciousness.
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” he shouts at the conclusion, quoting lines from a Negro spiritual, to a whirlwind of emotion from the crowd.
And then everyone goes home to the same terrorist violence they had left behind, because there is another America that sees King’s dream as a nightmare.
Less than three weeks later, four Black girls will be killed by white supremacists in the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Kennedy will be assassinated in November. Freedom Summer and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi lies in the next turning of the calendar. In 1965, the shooting death of voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama policeman will spark the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
And then King will be shot dead by a white supremacist on a motel balcony in Memphis on April 4, 1968, less than five years after the March on Washington. He was 39.
His memorial, a granite sculpture emerging from a rock face, now stands on the Tidal Basin. It is a short walk from where an inscription marks the spot of his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, given in the fading light of that summer afternoon in 1963, when the March promised a dream for so many.
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