America Remembers

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, the reverend Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. This speech would leave an indelible mark on American society and the civil rights movement.

As is often the case, the U.S. isn’t doing things by half; not one day but a nearly a whole week has been consecrated by the black reverend’s heirs to the event in his memory. Today, 150,000 people gathered on the National Mall, the great lawn stretching between Congress and the memorial where Abraham Lincoln’s giant statue gazes loftily down at visitors. It was here, one late summer day in 1963, that Reverend King pronounced the words that would remain inseparable from the fight of black Americans for the recognition of their rights in those turbulent ‘60s, a decade marked as much by the war in Vietnam and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as by Martin Luther King himself.

Four days from now, on Wednesday, the anniversary of the speech, church bells will peal across the nation as Barack Obama, America’s first black president, delivers a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

A plethora of events, debates and discussions will naturally follow, allowing Americans the opportunity to consider the state of relations between the different communities that make up the U.S. “I have always stated that we have made great progress in this country. But to blindly believe that our work is over is foolish and naive at best,” said Al Sharpton, a long-standing black militant and co-organizer of Saturday’s demonstration, where he will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the reverend’s son Martin Luther King III, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the family of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager murdered last year in Florida by a neighborhood vigilante.

On Aug. 28, 1963, a melting pot of ethnicities and backgrounds numbering around 250,000 people marched to the National Mall, intoning “Equality now!” and singing “We Shall Overcome,” in a demonstration originally called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Democratic President John F. Kennedy was just one of millions of Americans glued to their TV set that sweltering August day; until then, JFK had remained reluctant to force through controversial laws that would put an end to segregation in the states of the “old South.” Martin Luther King was the last speaker of the day; he diverged from the text of the speech in front of him to pronounce these famous words:

“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” is today inscribed in the steps of the memorial, at the very spot where Martin Luther King stood to give his speech in the dawn of the promulgation of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s laws on civil rights.

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