On August 28, the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, we celebrate the power of words.
On this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” oration before 400,000 souls at the National Mall. Dr. King was joined by countless others whose words should be remembered for the ages.
Fred Shuttlesworth charged the throng to “walk together, stand together, sing together, moan together, groan together.”
Roy Wilkins of the NAACP told the assembled to “remember Luke’s account of the warning that was given to us all. ‘No man,’ he writes, ‘having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God.’”
From prison, James Farmer warned about the dangers of injustice in a nuclear age. John Lewis issued a blistering indictment of gradualism and complacency. Rabbi Joachim Prinz recalled the horrors of the Holocaust. Whitney Young highlighted the ills of inner cities.
And they sang: Marion Anderson and Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” prophesied a day when the racists would be punished, and “Only a Pawn in their Game” lamented the exploitation of poor whites in the racist appeals of George Wallace and his ilk. Mahalia’s “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned,” a symphony in one voice, set the stage for Dr. King.
Dr. King’s speech was the culmination of the day.
His ringing words—about the uncashed promissory note, about creative suffering and redemption, about freedom’s ring, about gathering at a table of brotherhood, about transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony,” and, of course, about his dream—resound to this day.
Why do those words, all these years later, still challenge us, emotionally and intellectually? Three things, I think: the deeds attached to the words, the honesty of the words, and the consistency of the words. In short: authenticity.
First, deeds. The marchers’ words were connected to real-world experiences. Activists went into the most violent parts of the Deep South to sit in, enlist voters, teach classes, march, and confront their foes. In return, they suffered vicious verbal abuse, beatings, bombings, shootings. They were evicted from homes and fired from jobs. They were brought to court on trumped-up charges. They were slandered and ridiculed.
In 1963, the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake discovered why his good words required making good trouble. That summer, Blake put himself on the line at the protests at the Gwynn Oaks Amusement Park in Baltimore. Only then did he understand the need to make a sacrifice to foment change. At the March, he confessed: “We come, and late we come, but we come to present ourselves this day, our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God . . . a kind of tangible and visible sacrament [that] can manifest to a troubled world.”
When words are connected to action, they carry extra heft. Because they came from the deepest parts of their minds and souls, those words have the power to move people to action.
Second, honesty. The marchers never flinched from pointing to the bitter truths of American racism and violence. Uniquely among leaders, Dr. King told his people the plain, unvarnished truth about the struggles that they endured—and which awaited them still.
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” Dr. King said. “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
Rather than offering easy solutions, like a standard-issue politician, Dr. King told them they needed to suffer more. He exhorted them to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of or northern cities” to confront the brutal violence of segregation. Some, he acknowledged, would die in the struggle.
Dr. King also pleaded with his followers to hold fast to the twin ideals of integration and nonviolence. The “young Jacobins,” as Jim Farmer called them, were impatient. Dr. King embraced their impatience but warned that the battle could be won only with disciplined action. Again and again, Dr. King and other speakers confronted their followers with uncomfortable truths, while avoiding the danger of despair.
Third, consistency. The words of August 28, 1963, were part of a larger discourse about America’s sins and promise. To be sure, every idea expressed at the March was debatable. By acknowledging that, the marchers deepened their understanding—and found ways to express their truths to allies and adversaries alike.
Civil rights activists contested the meanings of words like race, class, America, democracy, voting, law, education, protest, nonviolence, segregation, and revolution.
As the afternoon program was about to begin, the March leaders battled over the speech of John Lewis, the new leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lewis riled the movement’s old-line establishment with his use of the words “revolution,” his depiction of the South as a “police state,” and his stark equation of America’s failure to offer “one man, one vote” with colonial struggles in Africa and Asia.
At one point, angered by Lewis’s rhetoric, the Catholic cosponsors of the March threatened to pull out. And so, Lewis bargained with Dr. King and Roy Wilkins and Walter Reuther to find words that would speak their truths while holding together a vast coalition.
Even the opponents of civil rights understood the need for consistency. The segregationist Strom Thurmond complained that civil rights would eventually extend to marriage rights and women’s rights. On that he was right—and would drive activism to new heights in the coming years.
Finding the right words to inform, inspire, and move to action is hard work. You never get it “right,” once and for all. But when you struggle with passion and integrity, you make progress possible. Words are essential not just for understanding and expression, but also for learning and changing the world.
Dr. King’s reverence for words made his life transcendent. Until the very end, he struggled to understand the world and then put his understanding into words and action. He thrust himself into the brutal challenges of injustice and the loving possibilities of redemption and change.
Six decades later, Dr. King and his fellow activists offer a model for the rest of us—speaking out and acting up—as we struggle with many of the same dark forces.
About the Author
Charles Euchner, author of Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington (Beacon Press, 2010), is the special projects editor at New America. He is writing a book about Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 campaign for the League of Nations.