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‘I Have a Dream,’ Yesterday and Today

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Sixty years after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech galvanized supporters of the Civil Rights Movement with an anthemic call to action, several thousand people gathered on the National Mall on Saturday to remind the nation of its unfinished work on equality.

Many who turned out, some having also attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, traveled from across the country to recall a searing moment in American history that propelled, in the words of one speaker, “the struggle of a lifetime.” The event was convened by the Rev. Al Sharpton and by Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and was attended by dignitaries including Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, and the U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.

Hovering above all the proceedings, though, were the words delivered by Dr. King six decades ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial, when he took the measure of society a century after slavery was abolished and lamented how Black Americans were “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Though the speech gained renown for its rousing, aspirational coda, other segments decried facets of racial inequality that still resonated with Saturday’s participants. Several attendees who were interviewed — some of them commented on specific excerpts, while others expressed thoughts on Dr. King’s words in general — reflected on the echoes, and the nation, from today’s perspective. Their quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Martin Luther King on law enforcement

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”

Jacquealin Yeadon, organizer, National Action Network, Moncks Corner, S.C.

“Police brutality hasn’t gone anywhere — in fact, we deal with it all the time. People dying in jail, in police custody. We’ve got stories upon stories upon stories — of the same thing.”

King on voting rights

“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

Talina Massey, community organizer, entrepreneur, New Bern, N.C.

“This is what’s called voter suppression. Especially in the South with these methods of suppression that make it harder for citizens to vote. This is why we’ve got to keep swinging and not giving up until the fight is won.”

King on justice

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Grady Smith, retiree, Atlanta

“I came here today because I’ve been a civil rights worker. And we’re here with a lot of civil rights workers and leaders, because we had supported the effort that Martin Luther King put forth years ago about voting rights, equality. We’re still not there. That’s why I’m here.”

King on urgency

“Now is the time to make real the promises 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 lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Nancy Hoover, pediatric nurse practitioner, Damascus, Md.

“I was a freshman in high school in New York when I heard the speech. I wasn’t here, which would have been phenomenal. But now I am. And I feel there’s not been enough progress. It’s like, ‘Come on world, let’s get going. What are we waiting for?’”

King on his dream

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. 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 that we will be free one day.”

Alfonso R. Bernard Sr., New York City, founder, chief executive and pastor, Christian Cultural Center

“He spoke of a dream, an American dream. And here we are 60 years later. Blacks have experienced unprecedented wealth, education. We have more Blacks in positions of power than we have had at any time in the history of America, have an increasing number of Black millionaires. With all that said, we still have the highest rate of poverty. We still have racial disparities in our justice system, policing systems, educational system, health care system and economic opportunity. We still have a long way to go.”

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