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Martin Luther King: The speech that changed America

CHAMPION OF JUSTICE: Martin Luther King Jr (PA)

FIFTY YEARS ago today, on August 28, 1963, the late Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr mounted the podium at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to deliver his seminal I have a dream speech, which some regard as the greatest speech of the 20th century.

King’s address was part of the celebrated March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where around 250,000 Americans, three quarters of whom were black, sought to highlight the perennial, entrenched racial inequality in US society since President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

In many ways, King’s ground-breaking oration was indicative of his life – many people do not really know it. While most assume they are familiar with King’s life, when pressed they can only quote three aspects: the [Montgomery] bus boycott that launched his civil rights activities; the aforementioned "dream" speech; and the "I may not get there with you" address, delivered the night before his murder.

Likewise, when most consider his celebrated speech, they start - and end - with the words, "I have a dream". The truth of the matter is that there is so much more to this hard-hitting talk than those four words.

At the speech’s outset, King argued that African-Americans were demanding the same rights enjoyed by their white peers, and that “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the [African-American] is granted his citizenship rights”. King further argued that America had given black folks “a bad cheque” which had bounced, and that they had come to Washington to cash another at the “bank of freedom and justice.”

For King, the March on Washington was a clarion call for tangible economic and social reform in employment and housing, aside from the urgent need for civil rights legislation. The second half of the speech, which includes the phrase most are more familiar with, saw him discuss his vision for a society where everyone was valued and had an equal share in what was (and still is), the richest, most advanced country in the world.

That speech cemented King’s reputation as a champion for social justice and led to him becoming the “conscience of America” – the figure to whom all Americans turn when campaigning for justice.

LEGEND: King delivers the famous speech (PA)

This has recently been the case following the acquittal in Florida of George Zimmerman, who was charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American. Martin’s supporters have used an altered photograph of Dr King wearing a hoodie, akin to the one Martin wore the night he died, as a sign of his solidarity with the dead youth.

Moreover, music legend Stevie Wonder has called for a boycott of Florida, arguing that King would have supported such a move had he been alive.

Whatever the arguments for involving King in the Martin case, it can be argued that he would not have stayed silent on issues of injustice, since he notably stated that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Dr King visited Britain on a number of occasions - he famously preached to a packed St Paul’s Cathedral on December 6, 1964, noting the “signs of a rapidly growing problem of race relations in Britain.” And on November 13, 1967, after receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Newcastle University, he encouraged Britons to “fight against racism in England, USA and South Africa.”

While Britain has come a long way since King’s visits, it is still an unequal society which sees more young black British males going to prison than attending leading universities.

Also, the unemployment rates and levels of poverty of black Britons are twice the national average and black people have the lowest life-satisfaction ratings of any ethnic group.

Therefore, the 50th anniversary of King’s influential speech should be an opportunity for everyone to take up the challenge of creating the type of society for which Dr King lived and died.

Richard Reddie is a writer and cultural commentator. His book, Martin Luther King Jr: History Maker is published by Lion Hudson (2011).

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