As we celebrate the golden anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we’ve learned – or relearned – that “I Have A Dream” wasn’t the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech.
We’ve been reminded that King’s address, widely considered one of the greatest pieces of oratory in the 20th century, was delivered first in Detroit. We remember afresh that King’s impromptu recitation of his dream came at the stern prompting of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who, sitting nearby, boisterously blurted, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin. Tell ‘em about the dream.” The sermonic sequence of “call and response” that followed elevated the consciousness of the nation to what it could be.
Twenty years ago, educators in my rural Tennessee stomping ground skimmed or skipped many lessons relating to African-American history. I’m still trying to reclaim a past that set the course for my future. I’m embarrassed to admit I was an upper classman in college before I learned the march’s primary conspirator was labor leader Asa Philip Randolph. He had incubated the protest idea two decades earlier, but called it off when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order forbidding discrimination in national defense industries.
More scantly known are the matriarchs of the movement who offered way more than moral support to the men credited with leading the campaign for equality. Ruby Doris Smith, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer are names we Google today because they’ve been resigned to postscripts in history. Yet their substantial contributions and courage in advancing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were pivotal to civil rights actions across the South.
What’s more, few people know the 1963 march inspired a Kentucky offspring. On the train ride back to the Commonwealth, local activists sketched out a demonstration that would be a smaller facsimile of the March on Washington. Seven months later on March 5, 1964, a crowd of 10,000 gathered for a March on Frankfort. The all-star lineup on the capitol steps was a sight to behold: Dr. King, baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Former state Senator Georgia Davis Powers, who helped organize the Frankfort march, recalls the event and the effects it had on civil rights efforts in Kentucky and on her own career.
As we commemorate the official date of the March on Washington 50 years ago today, I remember the emotions I felt this summer when I saw the MLK memorial for the first time. The slain hero is immortalized in solid granite 30 feet high. His arms are crossed and he sternly gazes upon a vista of the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial, and the horizon beyond. It’s magnificent, compelling, and thought provoking.
It’s as if King is still waiting for the nation to make good on the promissory note issued in the Declaration of Independence, still waiting for the check to clear in the bank of justice, still waiting for character to trump color in our collective judgment of each other, and still waiting for a beloved community to take hold.
His presence on the National Mall reminds us too that we must “forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline” as exemplified in the mass civil rights demonstrations in Washington and Frankfort. Today, we celebrate the dreamer and, hopefully, we commit anew to the dream.