Origins and History

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

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Along with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered one hundred years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most memorable in U.S. history. It was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, where nearly a quarter of a million people gathered for a March for Jobs and Freedom to urge Congress and President John F. Kennedy to pass a national civil rights bill.

At Issue

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

The spring and summer of 1963 proved to be one of the most important times of the Civil Rights movement. On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated; White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith would not be found guilty of his murder for nearly thirty years. In April, 1963, protest against discrimination in the downtown department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, culminated in protests on April 4. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest during these demonstrations and the media coverage of police violence against the demonstrators catapulted both the movement and King, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), into the national spotlight to an even greater degree than before. The boycotts and mass marches eventually provided sufficient pressure that White leaders promised to desegregate the stores’ facilities, hire African Americans to work in the stores, and establish a biracial committee for ongoing talks concerning racial problems.

These gains were achieved at a price, however: King was jailed briefly; police brutality occurred against protesters; and arrested protesters filled Birmingham’s jails. Nevertheless, the filled jails negatively affected the capacity of police to arrest and hold demonstrators, which was exactly what King and other civil rights leaders had hoped; news coverage of police brutality outraged many citizens; and, while jailed, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a document that delineated the need for and goals of the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. The acclaim that met this document foreshadowed the reaction to his speech at the March on Washington two months later.

March on Washington

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

The purpose of the March on Washington (sometimes called the Poor People’s March) was not merely to make an emotional plea on behalf of African Americans; its primary purpose was to expose the American public to the economic basis of racial inequality. Thus, the focus of the march was the need to increase jobs and economic opportunities for African Americans, in order for them to realize racial equality. These especially were the goals of the leaders of the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, labor leader and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, one of the earliest planners of the event. In fact, the full title of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The march, therefore, had a set of important goals: more jobs, a higher minimum wage, support for President John F. Kennedy’s antidiscrimination legislation, and arousing the conscience of the United States to the plight of African Americans. King’s speech was especially important on this last point, for the “I Have a Dream” section of the speech was an eloquent plea for a society based on racial harmony. Nevertheless, while King’s speech is best remembered for his vision of racial equality, its true import lies in the fact that the renown accorded the speech helped advance the multifaceted goals of the march, thus helping to pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Impact

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Although he did not know it at the time, King had delivered the greatest speech of his life. His words conveyed, to a television audience of millions, the moral power of the great crusade for civil rights in the 1960’s. No longer could the country ignore the injustices of poverty, segregation, and violence against African Americans in the United States. King’s eloquent plea for justice and freedom was one of the decade’s shining moments; however, it also served as a powerful reminder that much still needed to be done.

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