Sixty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, prominent authors and historians believe echoes of King’s charge remain the same today as this generation faces its own “fierce urgency of now.”
King’s words inspired a nation and helped bring about major progress in the fight for Civil Rights. However, a recent poll finds Dr. King’s speech is fading from memory among the younger generations and declines with every successive age group – roughly 16% of young adults report they hadn’t heard much or anything about the speech.
August 29th, 1963 – The official “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” also marked the 100th year since President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy about Dr. King, explains the Civil Rights leader walking a fine line to pressure the Kennedy administration and Congress to initiate a strong federal Civil Rights Bill.
“The reason his rhetoric was so balanced was that he constantly put one foot in the Constitution and the other foot in the scriptures,” Branch said.
Branch tells CBN News authorities feared the March On Washington would become a bloody riot. The government shut down businesses and warned people to stay home. Instead, the world witnessed a peaceful protest along with an iconic speech that often sounded more like a sermon.
“And he could tell that it wasn’t going over, and a black preacher is sensitive to the audience,” said Branch. “And black preachers are more or less like jazz musicians, they have riffs.”
Other historians like Dr. Jemar Tisby point to those whom Dr. King learned from and leaned on.
“That wasn’t the first time King used that phrase, ‘I have a dream’,” said Tisby. “In fact, he is said to have borrowed it from a black woman preacher named Prathia Hall, and he heard her use it in a prayer a year or two prior and it stuck with him.”
Branch echoed this sentiment during a special forum at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a traditionally conservative think-tank, noting a famous yet undocumented moment at the March when Mahalia Jackson stood behind King and said, “Tell him about the dream, Martin.”
Dr. Tisby said the march became critical in building up willpower in Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“It wasn’t just about black people, it was multiracial and multiethnic,” Tisby said. “And it was to emphasize the fact that we don’t just need good vibes or good feelings around race, what we need is material and economic and financial relief.”
Some believe echoes of Dr. King’s charge are just as critical today as we face what he called this generation’s fierce urgency of now.
“If you look at jobs and unemployment, black people are still getting the short end of the stick,” Tisby said.
In 2021, Black Americans made nearly 50% less income per capita than whites, per the Census Bureau (2020-2021); with similar disparities at the household level, meaning the poverty rate for black families is twice that of white families.
“Meanwhile, the poor are getting poorer and basic necessities from health care to housing is becoming much, much harder for people,” Tisby said.
Tisby highlights the recent Supreme Court reversal of affirmative action – which he believes closed the door to future successes of black Americans, further exacerbating a white-collar culture, housing inequality, and the increasing wealth gap.
“Eli Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said neutrality only helps the oppressor, never the oppressed,” said Tisby. “And what he’s getting at in that phrase is the idea that we can’t stand on the sidelines when issues of justice are at stake.”
Researchers and thinkers at AEI are honoring King’s speech by working to build a freer and safer world while facilitating difficult conversations on racial divides.
“One thing that you learn about America, if you study at any length, is that we’ve always been divided,” said AEI President Robert Doer. “We are people of different backgrounds and perspectives. And we’re democracy and we’re cantankerous, and we fight with each other. But we’re at our best when we work those things out and move forward positively.”
Author and AEI Senior Fellow Ian Row believes one solution is focusing on tools for success instead of barriers.
“The way in which we as a nation are successful is that we recognize the power of equality of opportunity, individual dignity, our common humanity,” said Rowe. “Those are the things that bind us together, the importance of families, faith, education, doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Asian, doesn’t matter. Those are the fundamental elements of human flourishing, that we must coalesce around.”
As for Taylor Branch, building a brighter future begins with being intellectually honest with ourselves.
“We need to tell ourselves that it’s about taking steps to build comfort across the lines that divide us,” Branch said. “And spiritual matters are an indispensable guide and assistance to do that when they’re alive, and when they’re proper.”
Just a short walk from where King gave his famous speech rests the “Stone of Hope” and carved in it is Dr. King. CBN News spoke with a variety of visitors from California, the U.K., and Germany. And there’s consensus that while America and the world have come a long way thanks to King, more needs to be done to honor his legacy, fulfill his dream, and fight for justice.
“We should look at coalitions,” said Tisby. “What are like-minded groups and individuals out there and how can we link arms and protest together? Whether that’s through legislation, marches, or fundraising – or whatever it might be. How can we gather groups of people to partner in solidarity on justice issues?”
As a way of addressing discouragement that often happens when doing this work, Dr. Tisby believes that God is just as interested in who we become as he is in what we accomplish. That’s because in growing internally in pursuing justice, we become more like Christ.