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National Commentary

Revisiting Dr. King’s 1963 “Dream” Speech

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

A genie did not leap out of a bottle when the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr.’s polished black wingtip touched the first marble step leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, and he hoofed it up 18 polished marble steps, until he finally arrived at the podium.
The stairs are important because ” a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” according to a Chinese proverb. King climbed 18 of the 57 Tennessee marble steps–(the rest lead up to the top landing), and encouraged an estimated crowd of 250,000 at the 1963 March of Washington to return home to Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and to keep striving for racial justice..
“There is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice,” King said during his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
King probably didn’t break a sweat after running up 18 steps because he was only 34 years old.
“As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead,” King said, looking into the record-size crowd and probably seeing several hands wave in agreement. Some probably said, ‘Amen,’ like some did when anti-slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, educator Booker T. Washington, and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois spoke in their day.
“We cannot turn back,” King said in his celebrated speech on The King Center website. “No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters (Yes) and righteousness like a mighty stream. . .Go back to Mississippi (Yeah), go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities (Yes), knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. (Yes) Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
King actually told an old familiar story in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was a story that other famous, bygone African American orators such as Douglass, Washington, and Dubois had already told in keynote speeches long before King climbed the Lincoln Memorial’s polished marble staircase, opened his speech, and compared the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to a promissory note issued by a trusted and respected financial institution.
“This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” King said, pausing to drive the point home, during his historic “I Have A Dream,” speech in 1963.
“America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds,’ ” King said in his landmark speech, pointing to obstacles such as “vicious racists,” police brutality–realities he and about 25,000 people encountered about a year later on the Pettus Bridge in Alabama.
Broken promises, oppression, and mind-numbing racial prejudice are old familiar themes that stream through troves of famous speeches, including the famous 1852 speech that Douglass delivered at the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in Rochester, N.Y. The same themes run through the famous 1895 “Drop Down Your Bucket Where You Are” speech that Booker T. Washington delivered in 1895 at the International Exposition in Atlanta.
The same themes stream through W.E.B. DuBois’ landmark 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folks.”
DuBois said, ” We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know.”
Do you see the point?
Black people refused to wait on a genie. Instead, African Americans took a step here and organized a protest there as the Jim Crow system that Washington urged African Americans to make friends with, in his famous “Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are” speech, was apparently faltering and on its last leg before King walked up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
It was all ancient history when King adjusted the microphone and urged about 250,000 people to return home and lead or participate in protests and demonstrations. (Specifically, King delivered his speech during the Great Migration that ended around 1970. Starting in 1915, some 6 million African Americans would leave Jim Crow southern farms and launch new identities in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles.)
King was speaking to many of them who “fled as if under a spell or a high fever,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her 2010 bestseller, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Wilkerson wrote, “They left as if they were fleeing some curse. . .They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railway ticket, and they left with the intention of staying.”
These were those who did not rely on a genie. Instead, records show that many African Americans migrated, left sharecropping farms, and marched in protests after King delivered his famous 1963 speech.
Most recently, African Americans walked to voting booths or voted with absentee ballots in the 2020 election.
This demographic shift produced the largest percentage point increase out of any other racial and ethnic group in three states in the Southeast: Georgia (5 points), Delaware (4 points) and Mississippi (4 points), according to the Pew Research Center. President-elect Joe Biden led President Donald Trump among African American voters by 90 percent to 5 percent, according to the Gallup Organization.
Biden’s supporters in many cases are the descendants of those who “picked up and left the tobacco farms of Virginia, the rice plantations of South Carolina,” Wilkerson noted in her book that describes the Great Migration. “They set out for cities they had whispered of among themselves or had seen in a mail-order catalogue. . .They would cross into alien lands.”
This means the day that King placed a polished wingtip on the marble staircase in the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he launched a great journey with a single step. Although his historic speech described recycled grievances and led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Biden recently won in 2020 because the number of whites who had voted Republican

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