This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Even if you are not familiar with the event, nearly every American knows about it because it is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
King’s speech is one of the most famous examples of oratory in the 20th century United States, as well as one of the defining events in our collective memory of him. Most of what we remember from the speech (in particular, the stirring conclusion) was improvised, as King embellished the written text with refrains he had used various times before from the pulpit or in smaller venues. Watched by millions on television (the event was broadcast live as well as re-broadcast that evening), it’s not surprising that most of the coverage this week will focus on King’s “dream.”
As a historian of the period, though, I don’t focus too much attention on the King speech when the event finds its way into my classes. The more important lesson I want students to grapple with is the larger context of the march within the civil rights movement.
One part of that is about the debate within Black America. King’s speech comes at a time when youth radicalism was eclipsing the influence of the “mainstream” movement within African American communities. This youth movement–contained most popularly in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (“Snick”)–was more inclined toward direct confrontation politics, possessed a strong sense of urgency, and expressed a more radical critique of US racism. King and other “establishment” movement leaders were trying to bridge this generational rift, to present their movement as simultaneously relevant to young Blacks as well as the wider (white) public.
To highlight that, I often share “the best speech you never heard” from that day–the original text of the speech John Lewis intended to give. John Lewis is a member of the House of Representatives, a passionate advocate of human rights, and a hero of mine. But back in 1963, he was a 23-year-old a leader in SNCC, and the youngest person to speak on the stage that day.
Lewis and other SNCC leaders collaborated to write his speech. Because of its incendiary tone and confrontational stance, Lewis was pressured to tone it down. You can read the text of the speech he did give that day here. Below is the text of the original speech:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages, at all.
In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.
This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, [for] engaging in peaceful demonstrations…
The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. “One man, one vote,’ is the African cry. It is ours, too. (It must be ours.)
We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?
In some parts of the South we work in the fields form sun-up to sun-down for $12 a week. In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the Federal Government for peaceful protest. But what did the Federal Government do when Albany’s Deputy Sheriff beat Attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the Federal Government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?
It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the Federal Government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.
I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?
The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The non-violent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside any national structure that could and would assure us a victory.” To those who have said, “Be Patient and Wait,” we must say that, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.” We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.
We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put in the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy, Listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.
We won’t stop now. All the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own “scorched earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!