On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave what would be one of the most important speeches in American history. Known to this day as his "I Have a Dream" speech, King articulated a vision for the United States of America that we continue to this day to strive to realize. This beautiful expression of a vision of a better future for all Americans is all the remarkable for the indignities and brutalities that African Americans continued to endure across much of the country. Together with his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" penned from his jail cell earlier that year (specifically, April 16, 1963), King's statements reflect an individual of unusually high integrity and compassion and an undiminished determination to see blacks attain their civil rights through nonviolent means, including civil disobedience.
What was King asking his listeners to do that day in August? He was asking them to retain their faith in humanity, and to continue their peaceful struggle for equality. King was a fervent adherent to the doctrine of nonviolent resistance, and it was this moral commitment that was reflected in his plea that "[w]e must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence." Have faith, he argued, that the path on which he and his followers had commenced would eventually lead to the desired results. Continue to have faith, King urged, in the inevitable victory of decency and dignity over the injustices that they had been forced to confront. As he stated in his address:
"Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed."
What King was asking of his listeners was that they continue the struggle he and others had begun, and in the manner in which he preferred. King emphasized that blacks were not alone in their struggle for equal rights, that whites were well-represented among their ranks. His vision of a unified, humane America transcended ethnic and religious distinctions, and he asked that his followers eschew the language of division and violence.