With these famous words, Martin Luther King, Jr. would open an era that saw the end of inequality between races. And it would put an end to the era where black people were considered inferior to white men. He uttered the words in a speech at the climax of the March on Washington, on the steps, next to the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, who was famous for the abolition of slavery.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a reverend and his wife. His original name was to be Michael King, the same name as his father, but his father had decided to change his own name to Martin Luther King, to pay homage to the German reformer Martin Luther, and changed the name of his son as well. The Kings, like a lot of African-American families, were deeply religious, which prompted both father and son to serve their Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a Christian minister himself, and it was through the Christian teachings that he was inspired to become someone who made his protest in peace. He devoutly believed in a non-violent approach to the issues that were raging throughout the United States.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and his experiences against the Brits when it came to protesting, King was convinced that the only way to get equality between races, would be to make their protests as non-violent as possible. In 1957, King along with other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This organization would be at the forefront of the battle against racism, as it supported many of the movements that sought to banish inequality. The first one was the Albany movement, formed in November, 1961. The movement sought to end the segregation that existed within its community—in Albany, Georgia—by performing non-violent protests. The organization had riled up thousands of activists, who all participated in taking over establishments that were labeled for ‘whites only’. In the mean time, the Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett, studied the movement’s strategies and used mass non-violent arrests, to get the activists off the street, and the media off his back.
The Albany movement
The Albany movement, which was founded by the SNCC, or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was critical about the party founded by Martin Luther King, and of the man himself. They criticized King over being lax in supporting the movements that wanted equality. When King ended up coming around, his intent was to only stay for a day, deliver a counsel and be on his merry way home. But the next day, he got caught up in a mass arrest tactic, employed by the police. He was given the option of serving time in jail, which would amount to forty-five days, or he’d have to pay the $178,- fine. He chose the former.
Three days into his sentence, Martin Luther King was released from custody, after the police chief arranged for King’s fine to be posted. The moment King left the city, any and all progress that the SNCC made, was swept off the table. The agreements were never honoured. Despite all this, the black protesters still saw the Albany movement as a moderate success, and it would prove the stepping stone into Martin Luther King’s illustrious career as a public speaker and activist.
Leading up to the Washington March
Over the course of the next few years, King got involved in many more projects. One of them was the Birmingham campaign in Alabama. Given the location of Alabama, on
the south side of the country, and with the South being
notoriously racist, campaigning in this area would prove to be challenging. King’s idea was to provoke the local authority into making mass arrests, which would turn the situation into such a crisis, that negotiations would have to follow. The plan worked, up to a certain point. The early volunteers failed in shutting down the city—by using the same method that the Albany movement used, and occupying buildings and public transportation—and it wasn’t until one of the strategists of his organization, James Bevel, suggested that they use children and young adults, that the strategy started having any sort of effect, with police using high-pressure water jets to break up the protesters.
The March on Washington
On the 28th of August, King took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The idea behind the march was to show the men in Washington, how bad the black people had it, especially in the South. The march was supported by the current president, John F. Kennedy. However, not everyone saw the march as something that was good, or at least beneficent to the African American society. Malcolm X condemned the march, because it presented an inaccurate image and was toned down from its initial idea, of slamming hard facts into the politicians’ faces and making them deal with it.
However, the march did go on, and the groups that participated did end up making several demands: an end to racial segregation in public schools, a new legislation that would provide meaningful civil rights, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, and other basic human rights that simply weren’t granted to them.
Martin Luther King, standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, and in honour of the Gettysburg Address, delivered a rousing speech, about the circumstances and lives of the African American people. But near the end of the speech, a young woman named Mahalia Jackson, cried out to King: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
What followed, is still considered to be one of the defining moments in our history:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation 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.’
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 one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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 today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.”
Written by Boudewijn Verleg