Not quite half a century ago, on 1963 Aug. 28, Washington DC hosted an event that went down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. And there was no doubt what the centerpiece and highlight of that demonstration was: Martin Luther King Jr.'s magnificent "I Have a Dream" speech. It was a masterpiece of eloquence, nuance, cadence, metaphor, evocation, and most of all effectiveness. It galvanized a nation and led to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
For some unknown reason, this 50th anniversary of the march and Dr. King's speech seems to have crept up on us unnoticed. I've heard of no celebrations or commemorations planned around it. But the absence of public recognition is no bar to each of us individually being able to relive that historic turning point thru the wonders of modern technology: context, text, and video.
As you watch the video, notice that, for the first half of the speech, Dr. King is reading from his prepared text, which concluded with the stirring imagery from the Book of Amos about justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Then he looks up and realizes that his intended conclusion, while speaking to the aspirations of the people before him, was from the head more than the heart, and he begins to improvise. The second half of the speech, where he looks directly at us, was largely composed on the fly, making it all the more astonishing in its power and coherence.
This speech hangs on the wall of my living room, and I recite it aloud at least once a year. It is a family tradition I commend to all — especially to the families of 5 guys in black robes out there in DC, where they seem to have forgotten it.
Incidentally, the speech's concluding lines — taken directly from the funeral services of so many American slaves — are inscribed on Dr. King's tombstone: "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last."