Long after the Civil War there was racial segregation throughout the United States as the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883 declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Federal workplaces and the U.S. military were segregated. In the North, African-Americans were restricted by hotels and such as to where they could stay. Also, there were patterns of segregation in banking practices, housing, and employment. In the South, African-Americans experienced segregation in every facet of their lives. The Jim Crow Laws had established that there were to be "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites, but such was not the case. Schools were run down, housing was in the most unfavorable areas, only lowly jobs were available--every place was segregated. In some places voting rights were denied. Although in a landmark decision in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Jim Crow Laws were not overruled until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.
The Reverend Martin Luther King became a civil rights activist in the 1950s as he participated in the 1955 Montgomery (AL) Bus Boycott. He embraced the non-violent protest methods of Mahatma Ghandi and helped to organize non-violent protests in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that he was arrested and wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." King, who helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized a march to Washington, D.C. where he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
In his speech, Dr. King uses the metaphor of a promissory note to describe the promises of the U.S. Constitution that were denied African-Americans, declaring that they are calling in this note.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
African-Americans wanted the freedoms to which they were entitled under the Constitution, King explains.
...Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
African-Americans do not wish to be denied their Constitutional rights any longer, King contends in his speech. For it is this denial of their rights that has caused the discontent of many and led them to march on Washington, D.C.