“I have a dream”: the story of Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights in America

Journalist Nige Tassell shines a light on one of the civil rights movement’s biggest events, the March on Washington – at which a pacifist pastor named Martin Luther King revealed his "dream" (and forever changed the lives of millions…)

With a podium weighed down by microphones in front of him, Dr Martin Luther King Jr could be forgiven if he showed any sign of nerves. Behind him was a vast statue of Abraham Lincoln gazing down imperiously, the President who’d drawn the curtain on slavery in the US. In front of Dr King was a sight previously unseen by any human eye – a quarter of a million American citizens who’d descended upon the US capital for the historic March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. And capturing the unprecedented events for a global audience were the massed, unblinking lenses of the world’s media.

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The next 17 minutes would arguably be the most significant of the civil rights leader’s 34 years. In those few moments, he would deliver what is commonly regarded as one of the greatest pieces of public oratory ever recorded – what would become known as the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. But there was no tremble or trepidation in his voice. This was his time, these were his people. The situation and the audience were in his pocket.

Towards the end of his speech, King abandoned his notes and gazed out over the sea of faces gathered before the Lincoln Memorial. Reacting to encouragement from the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (“Tell them about the dream, Martin!”), King embarked on the now-legendary unscripted passage with its hope-saturated refrain – “I have a dream…”.

Martin Luther King Jr: quick facts

When was he born?

Martin Luther King Jr, orginally named Michael King Jr, was born on 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia

When did he die?

He died on 4 April 4 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee after he was shot by an assassin

What is he famous for?

Martin Luther King was a key figure and leader in the American civil rights movement until his untimely death in 1968. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is often remembered for his ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered in Washington in 1963

Famous quotes:

“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’…” 

Here, on the baking Wednesday afternoon of 28 August 1963, those closing seconds of King’s speech would become a defining moment for the Civil Rights Movement, one almost as significant as Lincoln putting his pen to the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier. As much as Lincoln advanced the cause of black Americans with one quick action, so too did King with a confident, unambiguous speech that spoke right to the heart of middle America, of black and ofwhite. And his words bore quick fruit. Within a year, and after a recent history of race relations pockmarked by brutal violence and murder, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.

Son of a preacher man

The events of that high-summer afternoon confirmed King as the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement. A glance at the shape of his early life might have suggested this rise to have been inevitable. His preacher father – Martin Luther King Sr – had shown great opposition to the segregationist laws under which black Americans, particularly those in the family’s native South, were forced to live. An incident where King Sr refused to acknowledge a traffic officer who had referred to him as “Boy” was but one episode that would crystallise the younger King’s calling.

Allied to this sense of gross injustice was a notable precociousness. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, King was not only gifted academically – he entered college two years early and graduated at the tender age of 19 but he also possessed remarkable public speaking skills, winning several debating contests.

And then there was his unstinting faith. In 1954, aged just 25, he became pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. His religious conviction was his backbone. Indeed, he himself believed that this faith both outscored and underpinned his grasp of social justice.

Martin Luther King in India 

The pastor’s peaceful pilgrimage

When his plane landed in New Delhi on 10 February 1959, Martin Luther King was quick to announce to onlookers just how privileged he felt to tread Indian soil. “To other countries I may go as a tourist,” he declared, “but to India I come as a pilgrim.” The object of his devotion was undeniably Mahatma Gandhi, whom he described as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change”.

Taking place just 12 years after Indian independence from colonial rule – and 11 years after Gandhi’s assassination – King’s five-week tour was both spiritual and educational. Travelling with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and biographer Lawrence Reddick, he travelled extensively across the sub-continent, meeting everyone from national leaders, such as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to the humblest village officials. Everywhere King went, he observed, inquired and learned.

And everywhere he went, he was a figure of both fascination and awe as he addressed packed public meetings and university debates. It seemed the entire Indian populace was impressed by the success of the King-led Montgomery Bus Boycott three years earlier. The people were keen to hear how the non-violent methods that had dismantled colonial rule could be applied beyond its borders.

King, who first read Gandhi’s writings as a graduate student, was unequivocal: “The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.”

Without the teachings of Gandhi as inspiration (principles, in King’s eyes, “As inescapable as the law of gravitation”), the civil rights struggle could, and likely would, have headed down a much more violent avenue.

“Before I was a civil rights leader,” he would later declare, “I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.” For a man who was the symbol of such a crashing tidal wave of societal change, this is some admission.

King first became active in social protest in the early 1950s. He was particularly fired by the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and, in the mid-1950s shifted towards pacifism, having previously supported the use of guns for self-defence. King’s first great campaign was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This followed Rosa Parks’ refusal, in late 1955, to give up her seat to a white passenger. King was the boycott’s chief architect so, when the year-long campaign brought about a judicial ruling that outlawed segregation on the city’s public transport, he became nationally recognised as one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most high-profile leaders.

Christian coalition

In 1957, King and several other activists formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a loose coalition of black churches united to lobby and campaign for wholesale improvements in the realm of civil rights. As its leader, King was the most recognisable spokesman for the movement. While his profile irrefutably aided the cause, giving the more liberal quarters of the country a figurehead with whom to identify, it also made King vulnerable.

Not only was he a target for individuals (he was once stabbed at a book signing), he was also in the sights of the FBI who, in the early 1960s, kept a beady eye on him, whether by fair means or foul.

The campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, which started four months before the March On Washington, was a major flashpoint. While at pains to ensure that anti-segregation protests in the city remained non-violent, King did call for the occupation of public areas.  is prompted a heavy-handed reaction from Birmingham’s particularly unsavoury Chief of Police, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor. The Chief instructed his forces to set both water cannon and dogs on the protesters, many of whom were children.

Arrested and jailed, King wrote his famous ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ while incarcerated, in which he presented a sturdy defence of civil disobedience and an undeniable demolition of the illogical nature of certain laws. “We can never forget,” he wrote, “that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’.”

Planning for the March On Washington began in late 1962 but, thanks to the subsequent brutal events of Birmingham – and many other cities across the Southern states – the mass protest in the capital the following August wasn’t before time. Born out of frustration with the inertia of the White House when it came to change for black Americans (King described John F Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights as “tokenism”), the march was viewed suspiciously by both the Oval Office and certain elements of white society. At one of the planning meetings the month before, Kennedy had talked of the “atmosphere of intimidation” that such a mass gathering would create.

Similarly, on the eve of the march, King was interviewed on NBC by an interviewer who suggested that it would be “impossible to bring 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incident and possibly riots”.

Living in fear

Death threats, bombings and smear campaigns

“You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.” When Martin Luther King read these words in an anonymous letter sent to him in 1964, he might have dismissed them as those of a disaffected, lone crank. However, it was one in a series of letters written by FBI agents, who were seeking to discredit him by publicly revealing his extramarital affairs.

This particular letter took a sinister tone, clearly suggesting King take his own life. “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do [it].”

Following the March On Washington in August 1963, the FBI ramped up its scrutiny of the man an internal memo labelled “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”.

FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover was given approval – by the Attorney General, President Kennedy’s brother Robert – to bug phones in King’s office, home and hotel rooms, ostensibly to uncover alleged Communist sympathies. But all the tapes revealed was King’s clandestine sexual encounters, which became the subject of the FBI’s policy of smear and blackmail.

King was also targeted by various police departments. No stranger to the cell, he was arrested some 30 times while protesting. Often the punishment would grossly outweigh the ‘crime’. Once, he received a four-month jail sentence for participating in a sit-in at an Atlanta restaurant.

The pacifist was subjected to several physical attacks, too. He was stabbed, almost-fatally, at a book signing in 1958, and stoned by white protesters on a march in Chicago in 1966. Unsurprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan plotted numerous assassinations – both his home in Alabama and a motel he was staying in were the sites of bombings.

Fearing the worst

It would seem the authorities shared the view that violence was inevitable. Local hospitals cancelled non-urgent operations and stocked up on blood supplies. Jails transferred prisoners to out-of-town facilities to free up cells. And 2,000 National Guardsmen, along with 3,000 additional soldiers, were drafted in to deal with the feared bloodbath.

But the bloodbath never came. In fact, there were just three arrests all day – and the detainees were all white. This was an extraordinary statistic for an extraordinary day, one where the number of attendees vastly overwhelmed expectations. They came from near and far, travelling night and day, by bus, train, car and plane. From New York City alone, came 450 specially chartered buses.

And they came in peace. They weren’t the militants the media had filled their headlines with. They were non-violent black Americans voicing their concerns about social and economic conditions, and a significant proportion – possibly up to 25 per cent – were white Americans.

They were united in their search and support for a more equal, more just United States. On this summer afternoon, Washington’s sizzling sidewalks filled with song, more often than not the Civil Rights Movement’s unofficial anthem We Shall Overcome. They marched in solidarity, their placards demanding change.

What happened after the march on Washington?

The civil rights movement still had a long way to go

Despite its totemic place in the timeline of the civil rights movement, the march on Washington didn’t kick the door to progress wide open. While the symbolic impact of the day was undeniably strong, this didn’t translate into the congressional support that President Kennedy needed for his (admittedly belated) civil rights legislation. It was only in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination three months after the march that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was able to persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act as a memorial to the late President.

In 1964, Malcolm X – previouslys spokesman for the separatist Nation Of Islam – made conciliatory moves to become part of the Movement, o ering support to any organisation that agreed to the principle of armed self-defence. He even had a cordial meeting with King – although the vehemently non-violent pastor refused to alter his stance.

Malcolm X’s brand of black nationalism certainly gave the Movement more of an edge. As he famously declared, “It’ll be ballots or it’ll be bullets”. Having moved towards a more placatory position (albeit one that still refused to embrace King’s brand of non-violent civil disobedience), Malcolm X was gunned down in February 1965 by three Nation Of Islam members. “I think it is unfortunate for the black nationalist movement,” said the integrationist King of the murder. “I think it is unfortunate for the health of our nation.”

Malcolm X’s death was far from the only example of violence in the years following the March On Washington. These times were pockmarked by attacks from the Ku Klux Klan on black Americans and white civil rights volunteers, the most notorious of which involved the murders of three activists in 1964, the basis for the film Mississippi Burning (1988).

After the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the next target of injustice for the Civil Rights Movement was that of fair housing. It was a toxic subject, which was debated about and delayed for a lengthy period of time. It would only be after King’s assassination, in 1968, that this legislation would finally be approved by Congress.

They called for “Decent Housing Now!” or declared “We March For Integrated Schools Others pleaded for employment laws that “Abolish hate at the hiring gate”.

There was music up on the speakers’ platform too – whether gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson or young folk acts like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary. Alongside the speech-makers from the ‘Big Six’ civil rights groups who’d organised the event, there was also the odd unexpected contribution.

The actor Burt Lancaster, for instance, praised the crowd for “Helping us to redefine, in the middle of this dangerous century, what is meant by the American Revolution”. As they listened, marchers cooled off by bathing their feet in the Reflecting Pool, the 618-metre-long water feature situated between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument obelisk.

Some 80,000 of these marchers would have refuelled themselves with the 50-cent packed lunches that had been provided. Not everyone was in a favourable frame of mind, though. On the programme of speakers, women were very much underrepresented, while more militant voices were denied a platform for being too outspoken.

The most forthright voice of dissent belonged to Malcolm X. He was the spokesman for the separatism-favouring Nation Of Islam, and he denounced the day’s events as the “Farce On Washington”. From a distance, he disapproved of what he saw as the co-option of the protest by both JFK’s administration and white liberals.

Selma to Montgomery

The real campaign behind the award-winning film

One of King’s most potent campaigns was the five-day, 54-mile freedom march he led from the Alabama town of Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, in March 1965. The protest was a reaction to the death, at the hands of a State Trooper, of a local church deacon – Jimmie Lee Jackson – during a peaceful protest.

The first attempt to march was repelled by local law-enforcers, who attacked the marchers with batons and tear gas in a sour episode known as Bloody Sunday. A second attempted march was also prevented, before a federal order demanded that a third march be permitted to reach Montgomery unimpeded.

On arrival, a triumphant King took to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building and, less than six months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, the march became the subject of the multi-award-winning movie Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay.

“It’s just like when you have some coffee that’s too black,” he complained, “which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream. You make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee.”

Malcolm X also railed against the controlled nature of the event. “They told those Negroes when to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what sign to carry, what song to sing… And then told them to get out of town before sundown.” He had a point; the marchers had been asked to vacate the capital by nightfall.

Monumental day

To whatever extent the federal government had imposed itself on the original vision for the day, the impact was felt strongly by middle America, thanks to round-the-hour live coverage provided by CBS and regular updates from other channels, such as NBC. Indeed, an NBC news special named the March as nothing short of “One of the most historic days in the nation’s history”. The power of non-violent protest – at least in symbolic terms – couldn’t be denied, while King’s fluent, fluid rhetoric put the legislators on the back foot.

As King delivered his final “I have a dream…” refrain, Abraham Lincoln – or his marble likeness, at least – appeared to bestow approval on the pastor’s words. Both applied principle to a fundamental fissure in a society founded on democracy and equality. Both forever changed the direction and shape of American society. And, most poignantly of all, both would ultimately succumb to the assassin’s bullet.

The death of a dream: how did Martin Luther King die?

After King’s murder, his followers erupted in grief

Just two days before his assassination, Mahatma Gandhi had declared: “If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must die smiling.” On the eve of his own death, King’s words were as prophetic and defiant as those of his guru. “I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he declared in his final public speech in Memphis, “[but] I may not get there with you.” His flight to Tennessee that day had been delayed because of a bomb threat. “I’m so happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

In the early evening of the following day – 4 April 1968 – King stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to talk to a colleague stood in the car park below. A single shot felled him. The first police on the scene were those undertaking surveillance on King from across the street. After emergency surgery at a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead an hour later.

On the nights immediately following the announcement of King’s death, more than 100 cities across the United States exploded into riots, resulting in widespread damage and destruction – and the loss of a further 40 lives. President Lyndon Johnson acted swiftly to mobilise the National Guard, reasoning with the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, that “I’d rather move them and not need them, than need them and not have them”. Johnson also acted swiftly in the political arena, urging the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 just seven days after the assassination, safeguarding equal access to fair housing.

While conspiracy theories about King’s assassination were rife (especially in light of the FBI’s apparent obsession with him), escaped convict James Earl Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport two months later and convicted of the murder in March 1969.

Nige Tassell is a journalist whose work has appeared in the The Word, Q, The Guardian, The Sunday Times and New Statesman

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This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed