In front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., there is a plaque on a step to mark the spot where 50 years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., only 34 years old, stood and gazed out at an enormous crowd of 250,000 people, black and white, who had gathered as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The peaceful demonstration marked a milestone in the U.S. civil rights movement and in King's difficult and dangerous journey that had taken him from his pulpit in Montgomery, Ala., to become the leader and symbol of the movement to end prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans in the southern U.S.
The highlight of the day was King's eloquent I Have a Dream speech in which he articulated his hope and vision for equality in America.
That the dream of civil rights for all Americans still had not been fulfilled a century after slavery had been abolished in the U.S. was a poignant reminder of how much more had to be achieved. King's persistence would lead to his assassination five years later at the age of 39. And, it would be many more years until his dream was even partially realized.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, there were many notable African-American "firsts," each one celebrated as significant breakthroughs. Among them: Edward Brooke from Massachusetts, who was the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966; Carl Stokes, who in 1967 became the first African-American mayor of a large American city, Cleveland; that same year, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court; in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate; in 2001, Colin Powell was the first African-American secretary of state; and in 2008, 45 years after King's march, Barack Obama, who will deliver a speech on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary on Wednesday, became the first African-American president.
Obama's election would have pleased King, but he would have also been saddened by other facts that are difficult to ignore. Though African-Americans represent approximately 13 per cent of the total U.S. population, they account as of 2011 for 37.6 per cent of prisoners in federal and state facilities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, from 1980 to 2008, "Blacks were disproportionally represented as both homicide victims and offenders." And recent reports of the U.S. Bureau indicate "Black household income stood at only 55 per cent of white household income in 2011," while, "Black unemployment in August 2012 ran twice white unemployment, 14.1 to 7.2 per cent." In short, as Massachusetts sociologist Robert Ross has pointed out, "Black people in the United States face nearly twice the risk of living in poverty as average Americans."
King, too, as Obama did last month, would have expressed serious concern about the blatant racial profiling in George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager wearing a hoodie in a Florida neighbourhood. It is difficult to dispute Zimmerman's acquittal shows racial issues still impact on the equality of justice in the U.S.
So depending on your perspective, the glass of African-American rights and progress since 1963 has been either half-empty or half-full. An optimist, King, I suspect, would have opted for the latter. Nor does the complete fulfillment to achieve his dream detract from the historic significance of the march or his speech.
The photographs and film footage of the event do not do it justice according to Clarence B. Jones, King's lawyer who stood behind him on the dais. "It's a shame that the colours of the day -- the blue sky, the vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere -- are not part of our national memory," he recalled. "There is something heart-wrenching about the widely shown images and film clips of the event that belies the joy of the day."
Nine speakers and several prayers, readings and songs -- among the notable performers were Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary -- preceded King in a rare display of unity among the various civil rights groups. Finally after nearly three hours, it was his turn to speak.
Working with his advisers, King had agonized over every word of his remarks. The night before the march, he had stayed up until 4 a.m. tinkering with the draft. But the phrase "I have a dream" did not appear anywhere in the text.
King's well-honed oratory was a mixture of southern Baptist gospel, biblical allusions and strategic politicking aimed at an audience beyond the black community. He also knew how to judge the mood of his listeners.
King was introduced as "the moral leader of our nation" by the march's chief organizer A. Philip Randolph. The veteran civil rights and labour leader had tried to hold a march on Washington 22 years earlier in the summer of 1941 to protest the discrimination against African-Americans in the national defence industry. That protest was cancelled after President Franklin Roosevelt established through executive order the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
"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," he began. Standing in Lincoln's shadow, he referenced the Emancipation Proclamation and the fact that 100 years later "the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."
"It is obvious today," he continued, "that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned," King began reading from his notes. "Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque."
From behind him, as Clarence Jones has described it, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urged King on. "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin," she sang out. "Tell 'em about the dream!"
He read from his prepared text a few more minutes and then setting it aside, he spoke from his heart, connecting intimately with 250,000 people in a way few people could or ever have. He told them about his dream.
Probably nothing King did is so remembered as his I Have a Dream speech. It was broadcast over and over again on television and made into a bestselling record album. That might seem unfair and trite given the various adversities and threats he faced with courage. But five decades later, the speech continues to resonate.
"The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been called an ocean of humanity," reflects Jones in his book about King and the speech. "Maybe that is so. I know this: Where there is an ocean, there is a tide and Wednesday Aug. 28, 1963 was the day the tide turned."
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.