While it sounds cliched, it seems like only yesterday.
One of the most famous speeches ever delivered was the climax of a day that saw more than 250,000 people march peaceably to the National Mall to support calls for jobs and justice. The Civil Rights movement was gathering tremendous force and was being met with tremendous violence. At the beginning of the year, George Wallace would take the oath of office as governor of Alabama and declare, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In June, he would make his famous stand at the door of the University of Alabama (and would step aside once he’d spoken his piece) in an attempt to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering. Later that month, Medgar Evers, at the time the most prominent Civil Rights leader in the country, was gunned down in front of his family by Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. It is 31 years before Beckwith is convicted. Evers’ widow, Myrlie, would speak at the March.
Not three weeks after the March, four young girls who were getting ready for services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham died when a bomb exploded near the basement. Adie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley never got to celebrate their 15th birthdays.
Dr. King gave his speech after powerful presentations by now-Congressman John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, and Mahalia Jackson, among others. As he was nearing the end of his prepared remarks, Jackson called to him, “Tell `em about the Dream, Martin,” and he launched into the stirring passage we all remember.
The next year, the Civil Rights Act would be signed into law. A year after that, the Voting Rights Act (now under assault by the U.S. Supreme Court). Three years later, King would be assassinated.
For a time, it seemed like we’d made some real progress against the social evils King fought–racism, poverty, injustice, violence. But these days, despite the fact we have an African-American president, to most of us, the Dream he described remains unfulfilled. Voting rights are being rolled back in several Southern states. Economic hardship has spread widely, and the minimum wage is actually lower than in 1963..
And racial attitudes still have a long way to go.
But it was transcendent moment, nonetheless, and if we have failed to bring Dr. King’s vision to fruition, that doesn’t prevent us from getting up tomorrow and trying again.