Two score and Ten years ago today a crowd descended upon Washington. They were assembled as a movement that traversed the South with Freedom Riders, sat-in at segregated lunch counters, and refused to move to the back of the bus. It was a black crowd that filled the Mall that day, but it was also a white crowd as well. It was an American crowd. The movement crystalized into a moment when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But the threads of history ran deeper than that moment, as Dr. King explained.
Today, the young people whose energy ignited the call for change are now old. Their role is to help us remember the sparks and hold dear to the tremendous progress that was made. The torch has to be passed on to assure that the flame never dies.
But it was so much more than just that moment. What was marching forward that hot day in Washington was not the tireless feat of the people assembled, but the inexorable progress of history. The struggle for civil rights defines this nation, as Dr. King told us:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The event itself was the century mark after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, watching from behind in taller than life marble. But the venue was chosen not just for his presence. One score and four years earlier Marian Anderson stood on the same spot when she was denied a performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution hall because of the color of her skin. At the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson performed “My Country ‘tis of Thee” to a Mall equally packed with black and white Americans joining together. That echoed through Dr. King’s speech as well.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
The moment is etched into our national consciousness, but as the venue and choice of words that Dr. King framed it with speak far beyond that day fifty years ago. They echo through all of time into the soul of a nation, calling on us not just to free those who are oppressed but to constantly march forward in progress and prosperity together.
We remember the speech Dr. King gave that day as the “I Have a Dream” speech because of the evocative cadence that flowed into the climax at the end. But it was so much more than just a dream. It was a reality already defined by the progress of our own history and in many ways made real in the years that have passed since.
And when this happens, 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 of 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!”
The march was not just a time to dream, nor was it a time to simply be there. It was there to “speed up” what was inevitable, given who we are as a people. Our history up until that moment demanded nothing less.
It is not the moment we should remember, but the movement. And that movement is much more than black and white television footage and the memories of those now old. It is the torch of freedom, fed by the essence of the American spirit. To pick up that torch honors far more than Dr. King or a speech, but is instead an essential calling that defines our nation.