By bus, train and plane, they have come to Washington. Some arrive by car, and one even roller-skates into town. Now they are all on the Mall. For more than five hours they have been marching, singing, praying and listening to speeches.
You are the last speaker on this tiring but exciting day. How will you stir the crowd? As recently as last night, you told a friend you still didn’t know exactly what you would say. But now, here you are. Everyone’s eyes are on you. If you are nervous — who wouldn’t be? — you don’t show it.
You are the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and you are about to give one of the most famous speeches in American history. It will be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. [See Page 3.]
For many, it will be the high point of the entire civil rights movement.
A nation still divided
The year 1963 marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in the South were freed. But in some ways, life in the 20th century wasn’t much better for black people (then often called “Negroes” or “colored people”).
“White Only” signs hung over drinking fountains and doorways in several states. Many hotels would not rent rooms to black people. The best jobs went to whites. In some places, black people were not allowed to vote.
Keeping the races separated is called segregation. Schools, churches, buses and trains, movie theaters and even professional sports teams all were segregated at some point in U.S. history.
The 1950s and ’60s featured a big push for equality. King, the son of a Baptist minister and a minister himself, was a leader in this fight for civil rights. He preached the power of love over hate. He urged people to challenge unfair laws and actions, but to do so peacefully. King said black people should work with white people to gain equality.
Not everyone agreed with King, but there was no doubt that his was a powerful voice.
Steps toward equality
Several civil rights milestones happened in the decade before the 1963 rally in Washington. Among them:
The U.S. Supreme Court said “separate but equal” schools for white and black children were illegal. Then Rosa Parks, who was black, refused to give up her bus seat to a white rider in Montgomery, Alabama. Her case and others led to a court ruling that segregation on buses was illegal.
Across the South, rallies were held to protest other forms of segregation, including keeping black people from voting. There were “sit-in” protests at segregated lunch counters, libraries, parks and other public places. In Birmingham, Alabama, police dogs and water cannons were turned on protesters; more than 1,000 people, including King, were arrested.