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In the beginning of his speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to the Emancipation Proclamation that came as "a great beacon light of hope" to the African-Americans. However, King observes, the "Negro is still not free"; he is still on the outskirts of his society.
Alluding to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, King urges that "the promissory note" be paid. Further, he urges the nation to not ignore the urgency of this promise by providing opportunities to all in America. For, when these opportunities are offered to all, there is a better chance for racial harmony and happiness:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able....to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
In order to be a free country, King states, all citizens of all colors and creeds must be free. Then, there can be harmony, "the great beacon light of hope" as mentioned in the speech's beginning.
The fact that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect the United States of America had continued to fail to ensure equality of rights and opportunities for its African American citizens was not lost on Martin Luther King, Jr. As, on August 28, 1963, he stood before the national memorial to Abraham Lincoln and addressed tens of thousands of civil rights supporters and labor activists, Rev. King paid homage to Lincoln's efforts, but emphasized throughout his speech the shortcomings that remained. Noting that a century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation had been put into effect, King noted the following:
"But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One-hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."
King chose his words carefully. By using the vocabulary of slavery--manacles and chains--he was drawing a direct link from the crimes of the past to the injustices of the present. There was, he argued, unfinished business that demanded a just resolution.
Martin Luther King was, as we know, a passionate advocate of nonviolent resistance. He did not employ the language of violence and hate but spoke rather that of compassion and unity. The civil rights movement of the time was torn between followers of King's path and those who agitated for a more forceful response to the indignities of racial segregation. As he elegantly argued,
"In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
The solutions to the problems outlined in the beginning of his speech followed this sentiment. Rather, as is disturbingly common today, than appealing to the more virulent and hateful tendencies of humanity, King sought to seize the moral high ground and use it to advance the propositions set forth in the nation's founding documents.
In indicting the nation for its failures to advance the cause of civil rights, King declared that the gathering he was addressing constituted a demand that the government "cash the check" it had written with the drafting of the Constitution and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. These documents and the ideals they represented had been institutionally denied to the nation's blacks, and the time, King argued, had arrived for a just resolution of that situation. The solution, he suggested, lay in the country coming together. That is the basis of his "dream" of people of all races and religions working together to advance those ideals and to ensure that the rights guaranteed in those documents applied to all. That is what he meant when, in closing, he stated that
"When we allow freedom to ring . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last'."
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech that summer day in 1963 remains one of the seminal proclamations of American history because of his call for unity and for justice for all of the nation's citizenry. That was his solution to the nation's failure to live up to its ideals.
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