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Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most memorable speeches of our generation.
His “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., crystallized the growing unrest and impatience among black citizens, but his soaring rhetoric that day also painted a vision for the rest of the nation of what needed to happen to bring equal opportunity to all Americans.
It was a speech that pulled no punches, yet stopped short of advocating violence to achieve equality. He warned that “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” But he then directed his fellow protesters to “not be guilty of wrongful deeds.” Instead, he urged them to conduct the struggle “on a high plane of dignity and discipline.”
His call to action without violence walked a line that many thought was unachievable. After all, it had been 100 years since President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the black citizen, King said, “still languished in the corners of American society” and finds himself “an exile in his own land.”
King gave a litany of abuses and indignities that many in the audience had suffered personally. However, he didn’t leave them there. The last half of his historic speech spoke of his dream – his vision for a new day in America when the 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.'”
It was in this part of the speech that King’s rhetoric soared. He used biblical images and lofty language to describe what his dream would look like.
He also spoke from the heart about his family. “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.”
He concluded with a call to “let freedom ring” throughout the land, not just in the South and not just among blacks.
“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city – we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – 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!”
It was a magical moment in our nation’s history. Yet, 50 years later, we’re still struggling to make King’s vision a reality. It’s up to each of us to continue the fight and to make the dream come true for all Americans.