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Standing on the Steps of Greatness: I Have a Dream Laura R. Brown Texas State University, San Marcos

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Standing on the Steps of Greatness: I Have a Dream
Laura R. Brown
Texas State University, San Marcos

It is the summer of 1963. The federal minimum wage is $1.25. Sandy Koufax is having an excellent year and could lead the Dodgers all the way to the World Series. A young fighter named Cassius Clay is starting to make a name for himself - and that name is Muhammed Ali. Another young man by the name of John F. Kennedy has lived in the White House for the past two and a half years, but his reign will end abruptly in just a few short months. The United States has peacekeeping troops in Vietnam and just ended the Cuban Missile Crisis with the USSR . John Glenn recently orbited the Earth for the first time, but no one has yet been to the moon. The Beatles and Bob Dylan are superstars. Marilyn Monroe was recently found dead in her home. Another young man, Medgar Evers, was assassinated at his home on June 12th of this year because of his association with the civil rights movement, but his killer, a white man, will not see justice for another 30 years (Mackaman, n.d.; Ratnikas, n.d.). It was at this moment in history that the Civil Rights Movement not only arrived, but thrived, and accomplished many of their goals in a relatively short period of time. Even though the individual costs were significant, the societal gains were substantial. In order to appreciate the historical context in which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech (1963) we must first examine the place from which the speech was delivered: The Lincoln Memorial.

Historical Context

The Lincoln Memorial
As the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln led this country through the Civil War and led the fight against slavery culminating in the ratification of the 13th amendment after delivering the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His time as President was cut short by his assassination at Ford's Theater in April, 1865. The Memorial in Washington D.C. was erected in his honor and completed in 1922. Many famous speeches and events have taken place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but the most well-known speech is Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech (1963). The speech is so famous, that a marble step was inscribed in 2003 with the text "I Have a Dream/ Martin Luther King, Jr./March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom/August 28, 1963" on the very spot where Dr. King stood to deliver the speech.

Civil Rights Movement & March on Washington
One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the United States was still torn by racial injustice. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote, and Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); several states had passed Jim Crow Laws (n.d.) to prevent anyone from exercising those rights (Euchner, 2010). At President Kennedy's request, Congress introduced a bill (HR 7152) to grant equality to blacks within the United States on June 19, 1963 (Mackaman, n.d.), exactly one week after Medgar Evers was shot and more than 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln thought he was doing the same thing. The House of Representatives and Senate argued every point of this bill for several weeks but did not seem to be making any progress. It was in support of this bill that the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin with help from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Civil Rights Movement Veterans [CRMVET], n.d.; Ladner, 2003; Rollins, 2003). The march took place on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, starting from the Washington Monument and ending at the Lincoln Memorial approximately one mile away (CRMVET, n.d.). Many famous celebrities stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day showing their support for the cause: Josephine Baker, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Baldwin, Joan Baez, Bobby Dylan, Odetta, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Mahalia Jackson just to name a few (Ladner, 2003; Rollins, 2003).

People from all over the country were bussed into Washington D.C. for the March on Washington. More than 2,000 busses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered aircraft, and hundreds of cars converged on Washington, D.C. for this historic event (CRMVET, 2011). No other event in history had ever placed so many people in Washington D.C. at the same time. Estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 people who participated in the March with 75-80% of those being black. Many reporters noted in their articles and headlines on the days following the event how surprised many Americans were when they saw this display of non-violent protest (Childs, 1963; Freedman, 1963; Reston, 1963) especially after seeing similar events in the past - Birmingham, for example, which started as a non-violent protest but ended in violence and bloodshed. The assassination of Medgar Evers was also fresh in the minds of many viewers. Could this March be a form of retaliation? Many news reports at the time presented the March as a potential 1992 Rodney King Los Angeles riot, so they were pleasantly surprised to see happy faces rather than looters and rioters. Black Americans did much to support their cause on this day just by being nice and courteous (Hartford, 2002; "Kennedy asks speedup in Civil Rights Drive," 1963; Stanford, 1963; Zellner, 2002).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was a Baptist minister who was well known for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement. He led numerous marches and non-violent protests in the South such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (King, 1998). Dr. King also founded the SCLC with Ralph Abernathy and other Civil Rights activists (Euchner, 2010). As President and founder of the SCLC, Dr. King was chosen to speak at the March on Washington with five other religious leaders: Rev. Patrick O'Boyle, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Uri Miller, President Synagogue Council of America; Matthew Ahmann, Executive Director National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress; and Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church of the USA ("March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," 1963). His speech was late in the program, but prior to the reading of The Pledge by A. Philip Randolph, and the Benediction by Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College ("March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," 1963). Dr. King was 34 years old at the time the speech was given.

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