Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed up until 4 a.m. the morning of Aug. 28, 1963. He had returned to his room at the historic Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, around midnight, and labored over his speech for four more hours.
He had told his friends and his advisors that he was going to his room to counsel with his Lord, and for those early hours in the dark of a new day, Dr. King paced around his room, practicing, marking his document, redrafting it in long-hand, crossing words out, moving them around, adjusting, counseling.
The speech, now known as one of the greatest orations in American history, is also now called his, “I Have a Dream,” speech, but when Dr. King finished writing the text that early morning, it didn’t contain the phrase.
The 34-year-old reverend had used his, “I Have a Dream,” clarion call often before, but he hadn’t planned it for that occasion: The March on Washington. King’s speech would usher The March into immortality, and though such gatherings are common today, when The March occurred, nothing of its magnitude had ever been attempted before.
Prior to Dr. King taking the podium, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson prepared the crowd with, “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” Jackson was a friend of King’s and he would sometimes telephone her for “Gospel musical therapy.”
King began to go through his prepared text, laying out his case, nailing his lines, reading carefully, deliberately drawing his line of logic through the hoops he had set.
Dr. King’s speech moves us still today with stunning, compelling analogy.
A too-oft neglected portion is when he speaks of the promissory note in the bank of justice, derived from the Declaration of Independence and preamble to the U.S. Constitution, that was to be the birthright of all Americans: A promissory note for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a promissory note defaulted on for many Americans through much of our history.
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” Dr. King intoned in his singular and powerful voice. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Dr. King deployed the line that so inspires President Barack Obama, gracefully explaining the “fierce urgency of now.”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” King said. “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
King urged the crowd not to wallow in the valley of despair, but he had not yet marked history in the American agora.
Nearby, the gospel singer Jackson encouraged him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” She had heard it before. Jackson knew the dream. She knew the crowd should, too. It wasn’t in King’s prepared text. He worried it would be cliché. “Tell them about the dream.”
And then, he did. King laid his meticulously prepared text to the side. He grabbed the lectern with both hands.
Baptist Preacher Clarence Jones, who had helped King with his text the night before, turned to the person next to him, pointed at the crowd and said, “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my 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.
I have a dream today!”
Jones later recalled, “Though (King) was extremely well known before he stepped up to the lectern, he had stepped down on the other side of history.”
Today, we remember Dr. King. We honor his dream. We make it our own. We manifest it in our lives.
Since he made this speech nearly 53 years ago, we have made payments on the promissory note in the bank of justice, but the balance is outstanding. The account is not paid in full; far from it. We have so much work to be done. We still face the fierce urgency of now, and as inspiring as Dr. King could be with words, he was, first, a man of action.
As a society, as a community invested in ourselves, our self-governance, our sense of dignity and a love of justice for All Americans, today of all days we must remember our obligation to wipe this shameful debt from our ledgers, to take action, and to dedicate ourselves anew to the best in our nature, to liberty and justice for all.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.