On this day in 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the African American civil rights movement reaches its high-water mark when Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks to over a quarter-million people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The demonstrators, black and white, poor and rich, came together in the nation’s capital to demand voting rights and equal opportunity for African Americans and to appeal for an end to racial segregation and discrimination.
The March on Washington featured various speeches as well as musical performances before King, a celebrated orator, appeared as the final speaker. Paraphrasing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and portions of the 14th Amendment, according to various observers, as King neared the end, the address was failing to achieve the resonance of his more noteworthy speeches.
King intoned “I have a dream that one day this 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’ . . . 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. I have a dream today.” The then speech built to its emotional climax, which borrowed from a black spiritual, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Activist and Rep. John Lewis noted, King himself could “sense that he was falling short.” Perhaps that compelled singer Mahalia Jackson to call out, imploring him to tell the crowd about “the dream,” a theme he had used at earlier events but had been advised not to use in Washington. At Jackson’s urging, King abandoned his prepared text and launched into a discussion of his dreams, adopting “the stance of a Baptist preacher.” It was this conscious, contemporaneous shift that turned the address into perhaps the greatest piece of oration in the 20th century.