Dr Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Let freedom ring’

By Chris McCarthy

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. 28 August 1963

Between the memorials of American presidential luminaries Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson on the National Mall in Washington D.C., stands a newly erected dedication to one of the country’s most important figures of the twentieth century. The symbolism spoke for itself as America’s first African-American President Barack Obama delivered the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial yesterday.

It is the first statue on the National Mall to honour a black leader and is a short walk from the steps to the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech that did more to advance the cause of the civil rights movement than any other oration, march or demonstration. Credited with mobilising supporters of desegregation, the speech facilitated passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and cemented King’s place in the annals of American eminence.

Ordained as a Baptist minister in the late 1940s King became actively involved with the civil rights movement from 1955 when he lead the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott after Rosa Parks, a black seamstress and passenger, refused to move from her seat in the section of the bus reserved for whites. A skilled speaker from his years of delivering sermons, King was a principal speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963.

Channeling the frustrations of the more than 200,000 crowded on the Mall and the millions more watching at home, King spoke of the urgency of the current situation, starting several sentences with “now” in a challenge to those voices of “gradualism” or advocates of the status quo:

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

As a student of Mohandas Gandhi’s dedication to change through non-violent means, King urged the crowd that in the process of gaining their rightful place, they must not resort to wrongful deeds: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” Those two sentences capture King’s highest qualities both as a leader and orator as he eloquently expresses his empathy with the crowd’s frustrations, yet urges them to stay compassionate and show constraint despite the humiliation of ongoing subjugation.

In acknowledging their grievances King segues into the famous “I have a dream” series of visions, a technique William Safire identifies being used by Robert Ingersoll in 1876 and President Roosevelt in 1940. Irrespective of the technique’s origins, King infuses it with such power, eloquence and creativity that it justly merits its place as one of the finest pieces of oratory in history and is worth quoting at length:

 In spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

As he built to the close of the speech, King employed the “let freedom ring” line from the patriotic American song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, taking it to the mountain tops and ranges of several liberal states before making pointed reference to the states of Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, where racial tensions were especially acute. Climaxing with a vision of a free America many in the United States today will acknowledge remains incomplete, their progress towards that dream owes an unquantifiable debt to the ideals and oration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the 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! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”


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