March on Washington: Martin Luther King’s Dream

The March on Washington was an event bigger than life. The March united the American political establishment and citizenry behind the demands and goals of the civil rights movement. The brainchild of Asa Philip Randolph, the March on Washington mobilized over 250,000 people.  Ordinary people joined a host of national figures and celebrities, who came to Washington to protest against legal segregation and racial oppression of African Americans.  Moreover, the March on Washington signaled that the civil rights movement was a people’s movement, a movement which elevated the African America freedom struggle to the national agenda, with victories in Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, followed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the founding of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee (SNCC).  Americans from all part of the country came to Washington D C to support this national cause, with African Americans representing the largest numbers of participants.  It was, to be sure, a rallying cry against centuries of racial oppression. At this march, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous I Have a Dream Speech, recognized as one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century.

The I Have a Dream speech, elegant in its construction, poetically articulated both the lethal contradictions of America and its infinite possibilities grounded in the founding ideals of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Thus the power the I Have a Dream speech is in the manner it frames the cause of African Americans with the cause of America’s march toward a “more perfect Union.” Moreover, King ties the destiny of black freedom with the destiny of America living up to its promise of freedom, justice and equality. African Americans, King suggest, time and again, have been issued false promissory notes- Emancipation Proclamation, World War I and II, “Making the world safe for Democracy”, Brown vs. Board of Education. The March on Washington, 100 years since the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, was the moment and time in history to make good on the past promissory notes.

The genius of the I Have a Dream speech is the way in which King used the Declaration of Independence as a platform for national unity, situating the black freedom struggle in the context of founding of America as a nation and the ideal of the founding document. Moreover, the black freedom struggle is an American as Apple Pie and words penned in the Declaration of Independence. He then framed this in a larger moral and religious context- the biblical injunction to realize justice not only in God’s heaven, but God’s earth.  The soul force of the I Have a Dream speech was the challenge to blacks and whites, the descendent of slaves and slaveholders alike to live as brothers and sisters and the hope that a person’s character, not the color their skin, as realized in the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, would be the basis for judgment and reward.

The I Have a Dream speech forced Americans to rethink the type of society they which to live in and to reestablish the ideal in the Declaration of Independence as the standards to judge the worth and progress of the nation. The I Have a Dream speech changed the national dialogue and became the National Scripture for the United States of America. reference: Patrik Henry Bass, Like a Mighty Stream: The March ON Washington.

Return to 10 Most significant events in African American History


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