It’s 1963. In the spring of that year, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama police chief, unleashed high-pressure water cannons and police dogs on civil rights marchers, including children. By early June, George Wallace, the Governor, was standing on the steps blocking the admission of black students to the University of Alabama. After watching the scene at the University unfold on television earlier that day, President Kennedy addressed the Nation on his intent to introduce Civil Rights legislation guaranteeing African-Americans equal voting rights and an end to segregation. Sadly, the same night the President spoke to the Nation, Medgar Evers, one of the leaders of the NAACP, was shot dead in the driveway of home returning from a civil rights meeting.
African-Americans began mobilizing as never before. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, including A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, black leaders planned a massive protest in Washington in support of civil right legislation and economic opportunity. They met with President Kennedy, who initially was cool to the idea of a March on Washington because he was concerned, as were many, with the potential for violence and thought it would jeopardize passage of civil rights legislation.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963. A quarter of a million people jammed the Mall, streaming in by bus and train, walking up Capitol Hill from Union Station. At the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and Mahalia Jackson performed for the massive crowds while millions more watched on television. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” while Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in their Game” about the death of Medgar Evers.
But it was Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” who sang just before Martin Luther King’s famous speech and who rocked the crowd with her famous rendition of “How I Got Over,” referring to the struggle of African-Americans to conquer slavery, racism, discrimination and injustice down through the centuries.
The recording powerfully takes you back in time. You can see, hear and feel the enthusiasm of the crowd as it sways and claps with Mahalia to the rhythms of “How I Got Over.” And you begin to understand why, just a short time later, as Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, he hesitated a moment, and from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just below the podium came a voice. It was Mahalia exhorting Dr. King to:
“Tell Them About the Dream, Martin”.
And so he did. In one of the most eloquent and enduring speeches in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, departed from his prepared text, and clearly feeling the enthusiasm of the crowd, infused with the rhythms of righteousness in Gospel song, as if the Mall in Washington was grand church which is was on that day, lifted his voice and proclaimed:
“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.”
Later that year, in November, President Kennedy was assassinated, but his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, secured passage of the Civil Rights Act passed in June 1964. Even after passage of the Act, King continued to work on issues related to economic justice, housing segregation and poverty, and famously spoke out against the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”
Dr. King himself was tragically assassinated in April 1968 around the time he was planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” to include an occupation of Washington, DC.
Today, much of Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, particularly on the economic front. More than a half century after his speech, far too many African-Americans and others continue to live in poverty, particularly in major cities of this country, denied basic rights to decent housing, education and health care, and often unjustly incarcerated because they are forced to live in poverty-stricken environments where crime and drugs prevail. We can address these issues, but it won’t happen with politics as usual. It will take another movement reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, one that picks up where Dr. King left off.
The greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. King is to carry on his work.
(This article was originally published on January 18, 2016)