Fifty years ago, an estimated 250,000 people gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to rally for economic and civil rights for African Americans.
Although others were scheduled to make remarks that day, it was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who drew the most attention. Listed 16th on the program, he began to speak from a carefully prepared, two-and-a-half page typewritten text, but near the end surprised those near him by putting the pages aside.
“I have a dream …” King began spontaneously, his voice ringing out over the crowd.
Those words and the ones that followed have become a part of American history. Unrehearsed, although drawn from words he’d spoken before, they were magnified by King’s oratorical skills, keenly honed from years of preaching the Gospel.
Considered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, it has been credited with spurring a movement that eventually led to the dismantling of legal segregation throughout the nation.
Fifty years later, that speech was repeated at Delaware State University in a building named for King. Although the crowd was much smaller – perhaps 250 people – King’s words, as delivered by the Rev. Dr. John G. Moore Sr. retained their power and brought the crowd to a standing ovation.
“The event was a pivotal point in American history because of the diverse groups that were brought together in Washington.” said Dr. Marcia A. Taylor, an assistant professor in the university’s mass communications department.
“The groups represented various religions, causes, social causes and civil rights events,” she said. “All of them came together to petition the American government to change and to treat African Americans more fairly.”
Taylor is working on a biography of Bayard Rustin, an early leader in the civil rights movement who is largely unknown today. Rustin, however, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, along the way recruiting King and the other speakers.
King was inspired to depart from his written text because of his vision for America, Taylor said.
“The whole event is thought of as the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but it really was about much larger issues such as jobs and freedom and the ideals American stood for,” she said.
While some issues King spoke about – constitutional rights, for example – have been resolved, many others, including economic freedom, have not, Taylor said.
“We have not yet fully realized that yet,” she said.
Moore, who has performed King’s speech numerous times, did so again without notes or prompts, his delivery shadowing King’s inflection, tone and mannerisms.
It’s almost akin to a spiritual event each time he delivers the speech, Moore said.
Page 2 of 2 - “I feel his spirit is coming through me when I speak,” he said, “without my realizing it, it just comes through.”
“I feel it’s especially important to make sure people are not just entertained but educated,” Moore said. “His words transformed America and they still can transform hopelessness into hope.”