Malcolm X in his Autobiography was sarcastic about the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, and its highlight, the speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered 50 years ago today.
Malcolm X, an angry young Muslim, asked, “Who ever heard of angry revolutionaries swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I have a dream’ speeches?” That’s true about angry revolutionaries—but the 1950s/1960s civil rights movement succeeded because its leaders spoke in dignified sorrow, not anger.
They offered pleas, not demands. They led with their weakness, not their strength. Each assault from a police dog or a fire hose won them support. Historically, Christians have won by suffering, Muslims by making others suffer.
King’s speech was pitch-perfect because he understood the Christian process of change. He admonished his listeners to be patient: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
He spoke to those who had already suffered much: “Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.” He didn’t say, in a “bottom rail on top” revolutionary spirit, that they should slam their adversaries into those narrow jail cells. Instead of laying out a five-point plan, he said, “Somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
If King had ended there, he would have provided a good speech but not a great one—but at about this point in the speech, the story goes, Mahalia Jackson, near the front of the crowd, shouted to King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
King had talked in previous speeches about his dream for America, but to no great effect, and the text of this speech had nothing along those lines—but he heard the great gospel singer, departed from the text, and fashioned from his memory and heart the speech’s most famous lines.
Here’s what King said on Aug. 28, 1963, and here’s why scholars in 1999 rightly voted his speech to be the greatest of the 20th century: “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.”
Then King invoked a song that virtually every American knew: “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. …” He quoted its call that “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” He guided his listeners “from the mighty mountains of New York,” west to California and back to Stone Mountain of Georgia (he didn’t need to mention the Confederate memorial there) and “every hill and molehill of Mississippi.”
King’s speech was great because it came not from Malcolm X’s power-religion Islam but from a Christian sense of charity and grace, concluding with the vision of a time when all “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!”
Listen to a segment on the March on Washington, including excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, on The World and Everything in It: