Martin Luther King, Jr.
Triumphs and Tragedies
On 28 August 1963 roughly 250,000 people, three quarters of them black, marched in Washington D.C., from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where they listened to speeches by America's civil rights leaders, including King. Officially called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," the event was a major success, as the preceding Birmingham campaign had been, and, like that campaign, contributed to the atmosphere in which federal civil rights legislation could pass.
The planning of the rally had been a group effort, involving A. Phillip Randolph, King, James Farmer of CORE, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, John Lewis of SNCC, and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. Bayard Rustin became national coordinator. The plan initially upset the Kennedy Administration, which feared riots would result, and thus endanger the civil rights legislation that had recently come before Congress. Consequently, the Administration became involved in the planning, editing the content of the SNCC speaker's speech, inviting white organizations to participate, and thereby successfully preventing the outbreak of violence. This involvement led some militant blacks to consider the march an inauthentic event; Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X dismissed it altogether.
Attendance of the march exceeded the expectations of its planners: they had counted on 100,000 and got a quarter of a million. At the rally, King was the last speaker to address the marchers, and he delivered the most famous speech of his career. Impassioned, rhythmic, and clear, King described his hopes for the future:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners 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 state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children one day will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. 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. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountains of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing we will be free one day.
The speech aired on national television, reaching millions of Americans, including the President, who watched from the White House. It aided the Civil Rights Movement by providing a clear articulation of the hopes and wishes behind actions that often seemed chaotic. Even on television, King was a speaker with tremendous presence.
But the joy of the Birmingham and Washington victories was tempered by murders throughout the South. In Mississippi on 12 May, Medgar Evers, a friend of King and an active NAACP member, was shot dead at the door to his home. On 15 September at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, from which King had lead marches during the spring campaign, four little black girls died when a bomb exploded. And on 22 November, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. These tragedies grounded all the movement's victories in a feeling of solemnity and necessity.
Nevertheless, more victories came. In January 1964, King appeared again on the cover of Time, this time as the magazine's "Man of the Year." During the summer, King spoke in East and West Germany, and met with the Pope. He also campaigned for Johnson's re-election, against Johnson's very conservative Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. In July, Johnson invited King to the White House when he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which King had helped to precipitate with the Birmingham campaign. The meeting reassured King about Johnson's priorities.
King's SCLC activities that year took him to St. Augustine, Florida, early in the summer. There, protestors attempting to integrate the town were suffering the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Four people had died in bombings, and the Klan was organizing mobs to attack civil rights workers when they came to segregated sites. King, Abernathy, and others were arrested for attempting to eat at a whites-only restaurant, but King left jail early to receive an honorary degree from Yale University. His absence hurt the campaign in St. Augustine. An injunction was soon passed banning marches, and the federal government refused to intervene. The city thus became the site of another of SCLC's unsuccessful actions.
Also fraught with violence and mixed results was that summer's voter- registration campaign in Mississippi, known as "Freedom Summer." "Freedom Summer" involved cooperation between SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP, which together pushed to register as many blacks as possible. The murder of three civil rights workers, under suspicious circumstances involving local police, tainted the campaign. And when King initiated a march to protest the atmosphere of hostility and violence, the police halted the event with tear gas and rifle butts.
King's fame reached its apex in October of that year, when he was informed that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964. On 10 December the Nobel Committee honored him at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway. King announced that he accepted the honor on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, to which he would give all $54,000 of the prize money. And by early 1965 the Nobel Prize Laureate was back in a jail cell in the southern United States.
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