He Had a Dream

A look at Kitty Kelley's new book, Martin's Dream Day.

He Had a Dream

It was half a century ago, so most readers will not know firsthand about the extraordinary moment in history explored in Kitty Kelley’s new book, Martin’s Dream Day. Those of us who were there will recall our experiences, but gifting this colorful book to our grandkids will portray for them what we know from our memories.

Stanley Tretick was a photographer for Look magazine in the Kennedy era, and his friend Kelley is heir to his photos, including the many featured in this new book. Martin’s Dream Day is aimed at a teenaged audience and tells the story of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

On August 28, 1963, a hot day in Washington, DC, about 250,000 people — black and white — peacefully gathered in the nation’s capital to plead for equal rights for African-American citizens. King had urged President Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation outlawing segregation. In doing so, Kennedy would be acting to provide 19 million Afro-American descendants the right to vote, travel, and work.

King promised a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. He wasn’t asking permission; he was giving notice that he and others were coming. Both the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had been slow to join the civil-rights struggle, but they did not resist the tide of events.

Eventually, President Kennedy spoke to the nation: “We are confronted with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” Congress had to act.

Fears abounded. Military bases in the area were under high alert. The DC police and FBI would be on the streets. The National Guard trained 2,400 recruits to assist. There were altogether over 8,000 guardians of the peace on the streets.

The federal government and many businesses were closed. Liquor stores and restaurants were closed. The Senators baseball game was postponed. Hospitals canceled elective surgery so all beds would be available for riot-related emergencies. Jails were emptied to provide room for predicted arrests. Judges were on around-the-clock standby.

The press feared violence, not from the marchers, but from vigilantes and extremists who in other cities had recently met protestors’ non-violence with violence and unlawful law enforcement.

As King had promised, however, the assembly was non-violent. The event was covered by international media (over 1,600 press passes were issued), including Tretick, whose unpublished photos were found in a trunk he’d willed to Kelley. She used many of these photos in her earlier book, Let Freedom Ring. Her text describing the events of that day and excerpts from remarks by civil-rights leaders provide an historic record in Washington’s history.

Both books have special interest to me. I was there, having come from my office in the Justice Department to meet my wife and a few neighbors at a prearranged spot near the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd grew and included people of all races (but predominantly African American). Twenty Senators and 130 Representatives were there, along with movie stars, civil-rights leaders, and other easily recognizable figures.

People arrived from all over the world and marched with dignity to the Lincoln Memorial. In the humid weather, they were well-dressed. Some marched in phalanxes, in horizontal lines with arms laced. They were orderly, quiet, and earnest. Many swarmed around the Reflecting Pool in a field of humanity that ran all the way to the Washington Monument. I will always remember with a personal glow that day standing beside the Lincoln Memorial, listening to the greatest orator of his time pleading for racial justice.  

The 34-year-old preacher from Atlanta, by then a citizen of the world who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize, entered immortality that afternoon, speaking mellifluously and with eloquence the words he’d written the night before. Claiming that the time had come “to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” he called for “the fierce urgency of now.” He claimed a brotherhood, and one was palpable in the racially mixed crowd.

Mid-speech, King was interrupted by Mahalia Jackson, who shouted: “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” referring to a speech he’d given earlier in Detroit. King departed from his prepared text at that point and segued into his immortal plea, “I have a dream,” that reverberates still in the hearts and minds of all decent people.

The crowd roared. King’s mesmerizing words kept rolling in glorious cadence. John F. Kennedy, watching on TV in the White House, commented, “He’s damn good.” His speech was better than “good”; it is one for the ages — “dazzling,” Kelley notes.

The New York Times called the event “the most impressive assembly for a redress of grievances in America’s history.” The Washington Post reported that the assembly was a happy combination of prayer meeting, picnic, and political rally, a crowd “united in a sense of brotherhood and common humanity.” The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

We painfully recall that many of the social injustices deplored on that summer day in Washington, DC, have not yet been overcome. But August 28, 1963, was a seminal moment in American history in which all of us can take pride.

Kelley and Tretick’s Martin’s Dream Day will touch people who were there and inform those who weren’t, especially the young readers for whom Kelley created this photographic history.

Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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