How the March on Washington Worked

The "I Have a Dream" Speech

The best-known moment of the March on Washington was King's "I Have a Dream Speech" which says in part: "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."

But that part was not scripted in advance. The main thrust of the speech was actually the "bad check" – that the architects of the Republic had signed a promissory note guaranteeing all its citizens life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and had defaulted on that note as far as African-Americans were concerned. King stated, "Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'

"But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice." King went on to demand that civil rights and voting rights be given to blacks.

As the speech was winding down, Mahalia Jackson, a close friend of King's, felt it needed to go in a different direction. So she shouted to him from behind the podium, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" And he did, improvising that well-loved section from speeches and sermons he had given in the past [source: History].

Interestingly, Life magazine did not put King on the cover of its next issue, but rather A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The speech grew in stature after King's assassination and efforts to have his birthday declared a national holiday [source: Democracy Now].

After the March on Washington, civil rights leaders met with Kennedy and Johnson to press their case. In late October, Kennedy called on Congress to have the votes lined up to pass the Civil Rights Act. But that did not happen. Kennedy was assassinated in November. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson shepherded the bill through Congress, calling it a fitting tribute to the late Kennedy [source: UPI].

Fifty years on, official segregation in the U.S. is long-gone. Life has improved for African-Americans: 28 percent live in poverty, versus 42 percent in the 1960s, but unemployment for blacks remains higher and household income remains lower than for whites [source: Wessel]. Many Americans are disillusioned by a recent spate of racially charged events, such as the trial of George Zimmerman, charged with shooting and killing unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin, and the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act, thus allowing states to change their election laws without advance federal approval [sources: Bello, Liptak].

But the gains of the March on Washington live on. The overall themes of justice, equality and freedom continue to resonate with people all over the world and inspire other struggles for human rights.

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