On April 12, 1963, in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. met with his advisers. At stake was his future as a civil rights leader.
For almost 10 years King had fought for change in the South, but not very much had changed. He now believed that Birmingham was his last chance.
"He knew it was a dangerous situation — either he was going to step up to the plate in Birmingham or he … was gonna drop by the wayside as a leader," said Andrew Young, who helped King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith recalls the importance of Birmingham in generating momentum in the civil rights movement. "The stakes in Birmingham were high not only because of Birmingham but Birmingham was a symbol and a signal to everybody else. If Birmingham changed then you could change any place," he said.
There had been so much violence against blacks in Birmingham that the black part of town was known as dynamite hill.
"Everybody was sort of intimidated in Birmingham and for very good reason," Young said.
King and his team tried to organize a larger campaign to break segregation. But most people were afraid to demonstrate. They were up against a notorious segregationist, Eugene Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety. And Connor was winning.
In desperation, King allowed himself to be arrested. But even this did not light a spark. King stayed in jail for a week but there was no public outcry. King hoped that President Kennedy would intervene in Birmingham. The president did not.
When he got out of jail, King went back to speaking in churches, night after night, but the crowds began to dwindle. The movement in Birmingham was failing.
That April, the youngest and most radical member of King's staff, Rev. James Bevel, suggested that allowing young people to participate in the demonstrations might make a difference. "If you know you are oppressed it is your duty to act against that policy that you know violates your dignity. Now it doesn't determine what age you are when you can comprehend that. Whenever you can comprehend that, that's when you are supposed to take responsibility and act," Bevel said.
Black students in Birmingham of almost every age wanted to demonstrate, but King feared that the movement would be criticized for putting them in danger.
But on the afternoon of May 2nd, a day James Bevel called D-Day, some 50 students filed out of the 16th Street Baptist Church to demonstrate. By now, the police were accustomed to making daily arrests and these students would be no different.
But then another 50 appeared, and another 50, and another. By the end of the day, the police had arrested more than 600 students. The following day more than a thousand young people showed up to demonstrate.
Bull Connor realized he couldn't arrest them all. So he brought in the Fire Department with its high-powered hoses and he brought in police dogs.
The national press was watching as the young people assembled in the park across the street from the Baptist church.
The scene was violent mayhem. Kids were blasted with fire hoses, and attacked by the police dogs — all in front of the press.
Connor's response to the demonstrators literally washed away the last hope for preserving segregation.
Rev. James Orange, who was one of the young people confronted that day, said, "The dogs didn't turn us around. The water hoses didn't turn us around, and you had the police being outworked. When they'd beat down one group, here was another group coming behind them."
Within a week there were nearly 3,000 students in jail. Connor built outdoor pens at the county fairgrounds to hold them.
That May, all of America saw what was happening on their evening news. Americans saw the children of Birmingham doing battle for their future.
"It was controversial, it was risky, but obviously it worked. I mean, it had an electric impact," Smith said of the students' participation in the Birmingham protests.
Dick Gregory, a political activist and popular entertainer of the day, agrees. "There were people that didn't give a damn about a Negro, but they still didn't want to see dogs biting little children. They still didn't want to see fire hoses on people. … Those horrible pictures coming out forced this government to do things that it really didn't want to do and it wouldn't have done," he said.
In Washington, President Kennedy, who had done nothing until now, finally intervened. He quietly pressured the business community in Birmingham to integrate lunch counters, department stores, and other public facilities — in defiance of local laws.
King was 34 that summer. His movement had been saved by the children. Birmingham had set the nation on fire.
The whirlwinds of revolt in Birmingham were being felt across the country as city after city erupted in conflict over civil rights.
In Greensboro, N.C., a student leader named Jesse Jackson led a protest that resulted in the arrests of more than a thousand demonstrators. In Jackson, Miss., teenagers sat in at Woolworth's lunch counters. Hundreds were arrested. In Cambridge, Md., the National Guard was called in to restore order after demonstrations led to violence.
Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat who was one of the young leaders in the civil rights movement, remembers how the Birmingham demonstrations spurred a nationwide movement. "There were people saying if they can sit-in in Birmingham, if they can march in Birmingham, we can march in Nashville. If they can march in Jackson, Mississippi, we can march in Albany, Georgia. The time was right. It was an unbelievable period," he said.
King was now in demand to speak or lead a march all over the South and now he saw an opportunity to go national.
A giant march on Washington had been a goal of the civil rights movement for some years. A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — a powerful black labor union — had been talking about it since 1941. Now Randolph and King and other civil rights leaders agreed they would do it together.
During his presidential campaign, Kennedy had often said he would end segregation "with the stroke of a pen." When he got to the White House many people sent him pens. But by the summer of 1963, the president had done almost nothing about civil rights.
John Lewis said civil rights leaders were becoming impatient with Kennedy's reluctance to take action.
The Southern base of the Democratic Party was strongly opposed to civil rights, and Kennedy was pre-occupied with the Soviet Union. The civil rights movement was on front pages from Moscow to Paris to Bejing. Journalist and historian Taylor Branch said America's oppression of its own citizens was ridiculed abroad. "This is the height of the Cold War, and we're talking about the free world, and the Russians, and the Communists are saying, 'free world, ha! What kind of free world? You're oppressing your own people.'"
Fuel was added to the fire on June 11, 1963, when the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, pledged to prevent the court-ordered admission of black students to the University of Alabama.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was given the job of confronting Wallace, said, "Everything that we knew led us to believe that we were going to have to bring the military in, that he would yield to the military."
That morning the president had federalized the Alabama National Guard to force the students' admission.
For two years Kennedy had avoided wading into the muddy waters of the civil rights struggle. But after watching Gov. Wallace's show of resistance, Kennedy told his aides he wanted to talk to the nation on television that night. He told the nation:
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other, that this is a land of the free, except for the Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise."
Eight days after the president spoke on television, he sent a civil rights bill to Congress. It was the most important presidential initiative for black Americans since President Lincoln freed the slaves.
If it passed the Congress, black Americans could no longer be excluded from restaurants, hotels and other public facilities anywhere.
But the president was worried about the march on Washington.
He and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, met with the civil rights leaders and asked them to stop it.
But A. Philip Randolph, King, and the other leaders refused to back down.
"When it was clear that the march was going to take place," Katzenbach remembers, "the decision was made either by President Kennedy or by Bobby or by the two of them, I imagine, that what we would do is not only accept the march, but we would, in essence, join the march and try to achieve some kind of control. We were very nervous."
When King left the White House, he flew to Detroit, where 100,000 people demonstrated for civil rights. That afternoon King used the same words that he would later repeat for the world in Washington.
He told the Detroit crowd, "I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have a dream this afternoon."
Wednesday, Aug. 28, the day of the march, arrived at the end of a long sweltering summer of racial discord, and Washington was frightened that maybe it was next.
The government ordered bars and liquor stores closed. Major League Baseball was canceled. The National Guard was put on alert. The White House had prepared an executive order for martial law.
An army of citizens was descending on the nation's Capitol.
Veteran newsman Roger Mudd recalls, "Washington had never had a march like this. They didn't know what to expect. They expected the worst. They had seen on television the violence, the dogs, the hoses. They hoped it wouldn't happen in Washington, but they didn't know."
Under the careful direction of the march's chief planner, Bayard Rustin, hundreds of special buses and trains and carpools were now delivering thousands and thousands of people to Washington.
A group of teenagers had walked the 225 miles from New York. A young man named Ledger Smith roller skated from Chicago. By 10 a.m. more than 40,000 people had arrived.
The night before, King was still struggling to finish his speech.
Young said, "He went over it and over it and he crossed out words three-four times, trying to get not only the right word and meaning, but the right rhythm and the right sound."
The Rev. Walter Fauntroy remembers, "He knew all the lines that got the best response, and our problem was which of the lines we needed to put in the speech, because it's not just 3,000 people in a church now, or 5 or 10,000 people in a stadium. This was the world stage."
There were several drafts of the speech, and from the very first, King included what would be a key reference: he said the marchers had come to the nation's capital to "cash a check."
King made the point that the nation's founders had signed a promissory note to which all Americans would become heir. He was at the helm of a movement that said America had written black Americans a bad check.
"It was in the face of this terrible injustice that he believed that America could live out the true meaning of her creeds. And so this was a fulfillment of the promise of Washington and Jefferson and John Adams."
At 11 a.m. the crowds around the Washington monument spontaneously set off for the Lincoln Memorial. The march's leaders had to rush to catch up halfway down Constitution Avenue. All three television networks were going on the air.
By noon there were a quarter of a million people on the Washington Mall.
The program got under way at about two o'clock. One of those who entertained was the young folk singer Joan Baez. Harry Belafonte organized a celebrity contingent that included Paul Newman, James Garner, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Charlton Heston.
Hedrick Smith remembers, "It was so peaceful. It was like a state fair, it was like a festival. It was so ebullient and non-threatening that it was surprising. It was surprising almost in its ordinariness … it was not just a protest, it was a celebration."
Behind the scenes, a small group of justice department lawyers was working to make sure the march went smoothly. Plainclothes police were brought in from New York.
The Kennedy Administration worked with the labor unions to make sure there were plenty of white faces in the crowd.
While there were no police dogs, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an official from the Kennedy administration sat by a switch to turn off the sound system if the government thought any speaker was inciting violence.
President Kennedy watched from the Oval Office.
"I remember Dr. King when he saw all this before he went on. He looked out. His eyes filled up. It was beyond anything I've ever, ever experienced," Belafonte said.
With his speech in his hand and people as far as his eye could see, he began.
"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."
Young said, "It was hot and I was very uncomfortable, until Martin started speaking, and then the thing took on a new, a new character."
"The whole crowd just hushed and just something came over and everybody was just spellbound," Gregory said.
King was nervous. Looking down repeatedly at what he had written, some people thought at first that he was not his preacher self that day. He followed his prepared text closely.
King had been speaking for a bout 10 minutes and was getting to the end of what he had written — when sensing something in the crowd, he later said, he put the text aside.
‘I Have a Dream’
King never fully explained what happened to him that day, but the speech he had prepared was no longer enough.
King had spoken of the dream many times. But now the world was listening, and he uttered the lines that have quoted countless times since.
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 state sweltering with the heat of injustice, 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 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. I have a dream today.
"We knew America was listening. We could hear America dropping every other thing to pay attention to what was going on. And there we were and the whole world looking at us and all of us speaking together out of one man's mouth," Ossie Davis recalls.
King knew the crowd was with him. This was no longer a speech. This was a Baptist sermon.
President Kennedy had never seen King speak before. "He's damn good," the president said.
Lewis said, "For the first time in people's living room they saw, they heard, they could almost feel and touch what the movement was all about."
But the civil rights leaders knew that all Americans weren't watching with support. Gregory said, "Why did white folks look at it? Not because they wanted to hear what niggas had to say. They thought it was going to be a bloodbath. They thought it was going to be violence and so they listened all the way to the end. If you would've told white folks we have a very eloquent Negro that's going to give a very eloquent speech, we want you to listen. They would've broke the TV, and so we were so happy when it was over that there was no violence."
As soon as the speech was over, King and the other leaders were taken to the White House to see the president. It was a moment that had great meaning.
A Dream in Progress
But America did not change overnight.
The next day blacks were still second-class citizens. Civil rights activists were still in Southern jails. The president's civil rights legislation faced almost certain defeat in the Congress.
But something was different.
Lewis said, "There was so much hope, so much optimism, and I think those of us who had been involved went back to the South much more determined."
But that hope and that sense of optimism was shattered 18 days later, on the morning of Sept. 16, when a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four little girls were killed.
The bombing was a grim omen of the brutal years still ahead. President Kennedy was assassinated. The slayings of Malcolm X., Robert Kennedy, and of course, King himself, followed.
But what King said on that bright August day has continued to redefine America.
In its own way, King's speech on the Washington Mall was as important for America in the 1960s as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was to the 1860s and as both are to the America in which we live today.