In 1962, A. Philip Randolph, a noted civil rights activist and labor leader, sent out a call to black groups to participate in a “March on Washington” to protest the slow pace of desegregation. In the wake of Birmingham and its galvanizing effect on the black community, many were eager to participate in a mass effort that they hoped would show their impatience. Dr. King argued that a march would dramatize the issue at hand and mobilize support from all parts of the country.
Those who discounted the appeal of the march were astounded to discover that it was receiving broad support from many sectors of American life. All of the major civil rights groups were joined by religious, labor and civic organizations in planning and executing the gigantic demonstration. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 Americans from many religious and ethnic backgrounds converged on Washington, staging the largest demonstration in the history of the nation’s capital.
The orderly procession moved from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther (a labor leader), and others addressed the throng.
A mesmerizing speaker, King gave what was later acknowledged to be one of the greatest speeches in American history at the March on Washington. Entitled “I Have a Dream,” the speech outlined his hopes for a time when his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In one of the most famous passages from the speech, King declared:
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Carrying on the Dream
In the summer of 1964, King was arrested after joining other SCLC workers in St. Augustine, Florida, who were demonstrating for the desegregation of public accommodations. His book, Why We Can’t Wait, was published by Harper and Row. He was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) signed the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the fall of 1964, King visited Pope Paul VI at the Vatican and Mayor Willy Brandt in West Berlin, Germany. His year was capped off, however, on December 10th when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, an award which acknowledged the international acclaim accorded him as leader of the crusade for full citizenship rights for African Americans.
Accepting the award on behalf of the civil rights movement, Dr. King stated:
I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award in behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice . . . Sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.
King continued working to integrate housing, jobs and schools to make the dream of racial equality a reality. In March 1965, he led a celebrated 87-kilometer march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery—in the face of hostility from state officials and attacks by white Southerners—to dramatize the need for a federal voting rights bill. This landmark legislation, the Voting Rights Act, was passed by Congress in 1965. It permitted federal examiners to register voters in localities where discrimination had occurred. In subsequent years, black voting in the South—and the numbers of black elected officials—increased enormously.
A year later, James Meredith, the first black to enter the University of Mississippi, was wounded during a lone march across the state of Mississippi. King immediately went to Mississippi and, joined by hundreds of others, completed Meredith’s march. In Mississippi, King faced a split in the ranks of the civil rights movement as younger, more militant members first raised the cry of “black power” and rejected his philosophy of nonviolence. Despite this shift toward militancy on the part of black groups in the late 1960s, King never wavered in his commitment to the principles and practice of nonviolence to achieve his aims of social justice and human dignity.
With the successful implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King increasingly devoted his time to the issue of poverty in the United States. He began to organize a “Poor People’s March on Washington” to dramatize the need for jobs, education and better living conditions for the nation’s poor. Tragically, on April 4, 1968, as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a sniper.
In recognition of King’s prodigious achievements, on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of the birth of Dr. King. For the first time, the nation would honor a black American; the dream continues to live and to shape the destiny of the country.
Responding to the president at the signing ceremony establishing the federal holiday, Coretta Scott King, now director of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said of her husband:
In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history. He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.
1. Who coordinated the “March on Washington”?
a. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
b. President Lyndon B. Johnson
c. A. Philip Randolph
d. Roy Wilkins
2. The primary goal of the March on Washington was to
a. protest the slow pace of desegregation.
b. protest desegregation.
c. frighten whites nationwide.
d. threaten the federal government with a national boycott.
3. According to King’s speech, the African-American people will be “free at last” when
a. they die and come face to fact with God.
b. all of humankind learns to respect and love each other.
c. the Civil Rights Act is passed.
d. they have all returned to Africa.
4. Dr. King enjoyed a number of achievements in 1964. The highlight was
a. visiting with the pope.
b. working closely with President Johnson.
c. getting his book, Why We Can’t Wait, published.
d. winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
5. By the time King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, the civil rights movement
a. had finally accomplished its goals.
b. was still working toward racial equality.
c. had disintegrated.
d. had become a violent organization.
6. In the late 1960s, King saw a change in attitudes in the civil rights movement. This change was from
a. nonviolent to violent.
b. realistic to unrealistic.
c. angry to peaceful.
d. hopeful to despondent.
7. Which of the following best describes Dr. King’s efforts?
8. According to King, how was civil disobedience an expression of the “highest respect for the law”?
a. If a person disobeys the law consciously, he is fully aware of his actions.
b. When a person disagrees with the law, he can disobey it.
c. Some laws are unjust and therefore the penalties are unjust as well.
d. If one is willing to face the penalty of an unjust law, this will raise the community’s awareness. 9.
9. King was arrested many times over the course of his life. Do you believe that it is ever justifiable to deliberately perform an action that will get you arrested? Why or why not?