Public access radio that connects community members to one another and the world
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Join KDNK for the Chili & Cornbread Cookoff on Saturday, March 16th.

Looking back on Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, 60 years later

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a warm afternoon in August 1963, 60 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood behind a microphone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. More than a quarter million people had gathered that day for the March on Washington. King was scheduled to speak for four minutes. He went a little long. And that speech has lasted very long in the national memory. NPR's Jessica Green reports.

JESSICA GREEN, BYLINE: In the days leading up to August 28, 1963, the mood in Washington, D.C., was anxious. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was advertised as a peaceful demonstration to advocate for the civil and economic rights of Black people. Here's an announcement from the Freedom Now Party promoting the event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are requesting all citizens to move into Washington to go by plane, by car, bus, any way that you can get there. Walk if necessary.

GREEN: But historian Taylor Branch told NPR in 2008 that many people in the area expected riots and mayhem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAYLOR BRANCH: This was an overwhelmingly white culture and white country, and the media presumed that you couldn't assemble 100,000 Black folks in the nation's capital with political grievances without a lot of them running amok.

GREEN: The Washington, D.C. police force brought in nearly 6,000 officers, and the government brought in an additional 6,000 soldiers and National Guardsmen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRANCH: Liquor sales were canceled in the District of Columbia for the first time since the end of Prohibition in 1933. Plasma was stockpiled. Major League Baseball canceled not one, but two Washington Senators games against the Minnesota Twins for fear that baseball fans would be casualties of the riot.

GREEN: Roger Wilkins, who at the time was an official in the Kennedy administration, joined the march with his wife. He spoke to NPR in 2008 about racial overtones around the event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROGER WILKINS: I remember that the members - Southern members of the House and the Senate, by and large, told their secretaries to stay home that day and lock the door so they wouldn't be raped.

GREEN: And still, despite the hysteria and efforts to cancel the march, thousands of people from all over the U.S. came to Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILKINS: It was like a church social. I mean, people were happy. People were greeting each other. Parts of families from different parts of the country were reforming and almost having little family reunions. It was that kind of feeling.

GREEN: The march included a three-hour-long program of performances and speeches by civil rights and religious leaders. The Eva Jessye Choir sang "We Shall Overcome." Civil rights icon John Lewis, who would later become a Georgia congressman, called for America to wake up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: We must wake up, America, wake up, for we cannot stop. And we will not and cannot be patient.

GREEN: Daisy Bates, a mentor to the Little Rock Nine, gave a tribute to Black women fighters for freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAISY BATES: Your presence here today testifies that no child will have to walk alone through a mob in any city or hamlet of this country because you will be there walking with them. Thank you.

GREEN: Martin Luther King Jr. volunteered to close out the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: 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.

GREEN: King is reading from a script. He begins speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation, a document intended to free African Americans signed 100 years earlier. He preached about the country's long history of racial injustice and urged the audience to hold the nation accountable and fulfill their founding promises.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: Signed the Emancipation Proclamation...

GREEN: And 11 minutes into his speech, he suddenly looks up from the podium and out at the overflowing crowd.

(APPLAUSE)

GREEN: Historian Taylor Branch says gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out to King.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRANCH: Mahalia Jackson, who had just sung, and she was standing behind Dr. King, along with lots of other people. A number of people say that Mahalia Jackson kept urging Dr. King to tell them about the dream.

GREEN: And so King goes off script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: I say to you today, my friends...

GREEN: His most famous words that day were not planned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: I have a dream that one day this nation...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

KING: ...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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILKINS: For those of us who were born in segregation, as I was, we went away, many of us - I among them - euphoric.

GREEN: Again, Roger Wilkins, who was in the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILKINS: And I remember we're yelling freedom now, freedom now - everybody. Yeah, freedom now, baby. You got to have it.

GREEN: In the days after, most news reports didn't even mention King's speech. Newspapers focused more on the crowd size and the fact that there was no violence. Today King's words are memorialized as the I Have A Dream speech. But his message 60 years ago went far beyond that famous line. And some civil rights activists argue that history has whitewashed a lot of his more radical ideas. Acclaimed journalist and author A. Peter Bailey attended the march and spoke with NPR in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

A PETER BAILEY: That was a powerful speech. It's almost criminal where they have reduced that man to I Have A Dream, where he talks about the founding fathers of this country gave our ancestors a promissory note.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BAILEY: And we've come here today to cash that check. Now, to me, that should be the quote, you know, that is memorized from that speech. You know, he had nothing - any programs and events, all you hear is I have a dream.

GREEN: King's original typewritten speech was given to a college basketball player from Villanova University named George Raveling. On the day of the march, Raveling was working as a bodyguard, standing behind King on stage, and after the speech, he impulsively asked King for the paper copy. Raveling kept that speech locked in a safe for decades before donating the artifact to Villanova University. The school loaned it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where it's currently on display today.

Jessica Green, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPEAK LORD JESUS")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Speak, Lord Jesus, please speak to my soul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jessica Green