Washington — It was a march and a speech that the world cannot forget. August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where they heard Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech of unsurpassable eloquence. Known ever since from its “I Have a Dream” passages, the speech gave impassioned voice to the demands of the U.S. civil rights movement — equal rights for all citizens, including those who were born black and brown.
The speech particularly, coming near the close of the then, largest demonstration in U.S. history, created a new spirit of hope across the land. It was one of those rare moments in history that changed a nation — paving the way for a transformation of American law and life.
“It was a very peaceful day. A sea of white as well as black faces enveloped the Mall,” recalls Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She was one of the march organizers and sat behind King on the platform. “I think it was a decisive moment not only in U.S. civil rights history, but also in American history. It resulted in a new determination to move toward equality, freedom and greater employment for people of color,” she adds.
Height — still an activist and the author of a memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates — says, “The real significance of the march, and the speech, was that it changed attitudes. Righteous indignation against racial discrimination became widespread after the march. It led to a time so full of promise and achievement. You could feel it.” Representative John Lewis (a Democrat from Georgia), the youngest speaker, at age 23 at the 1963 march, agrees. “Because of the march, because of the involvement of hundreds and thousands of ordinary citizens, we experienced what I like to call a nonviolent revolution under the rule of law — a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.”
The tangible manifestation of the change that Height and Lewis describe was quick in coming. Less than a year after the march, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public facilities, such as hotels and restaurants, and also prohibited employment discrimination. The following year, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote in reality as well as on paper. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act to remove discrimination in buying and renting of housing. This landmark legislation was complemented by new policies, such as affirmative action, designed to counter the legacy of discrimination and to promote African American advancement.
The 1960s legislation is considered to be the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act swept away the more blatant forms of segregation and discrimination, banishing centuries-old indignities. The Voting Rights Act empowered millions of African Americans politically, leading to a surge in black officeholders.
The new laws took effect immediately. More evolutionary was a change in attitudes. In a 1963 Newsweek poll, 74 percent of whites said racial integration was “moving too fast,” a viewpoint that seems shocking today when attitudes are very different. In a 2000 New York Times poll, for example, 93 percent of whites said they would vote for a qualified black presidential candidate. More than 60 percent approved of interracial marriage. And 80 percent said they did not care whether their neighbors were white or black.
If King were alive today, he likely would applaud the achievement of most of the aims of the 1963 march, while stressing that his dream still has not been fully realized, particularly as relates to equality of economic opportunity. It is a view also stressed by civil rights leaders, such as Height and Lewis. “We have made much of Dr. King’s dream come true,” says Lewis. But, he adds, “we still have a distance to go.” Closing lingering economic and educational disparities among the races, however, is a much more complex task than ending legally sanctioned segregation and mandating voting rights.
As for King, his dream at the March on Washington is now part of the political mainstream, his birthday a national holiday during which Americans honor his ideas and his memory. Political leaders from both major parties supported a memorial to be built in his honor in the nation’s capital alongside three giants of American history — Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is a measure perhaps of how much a nation can grow and change that King’s dream now is accepted as irrefutable truth by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
And not just Americans. Throughout his short life of just 39 years, King fought for racial justice everywhere, not just in the United States. To that end, he traveled the world proclaiming his vision of the “beloved community,” and defining racism as a worldwide evil. “Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism,” he remarked. “It is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no national boundaries.”
Even on the day of his “I Have A Dream” speech, when he was talking to Americans in particular, King was conscious of the worldwide impact of the march and its message. “As television beamed the image of this extraordinary gathering across the borders and oceans,” he said, “everyone who believed in man’s capacity to better himself had a moment of inspiration and confidence in the future of the human race.”
The universal significance of the events of August 28, 1963, is underlined by Height. “Wherever I have been in the world these last 40 years, it’s incredible to me how much people know about the civil rights movement and Dr. King — often in very specific detail. The world was watching us on that day,” she says. “The march touched the world as well as America.”