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Let freedom ring

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at 60 years

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington. Associated Press Photo, file

Let freedom ring
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“I have a dream. … Let freedom ring!” These words, spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., were immortalized on August 28, 1963 before a crowd of more than 200,000 people on the National Mall. The hope that drew people to Washington that day, according to King, was to make good on a long-delayed promissory note from the Founding Fathers, a promise of freedom and justice for all. After 60 years, King’s words are a reminder and inspiration for us as well.

In 1963, legislation to end segregation that would ultimately become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seemed to be stalled. It had been two decades since African Americans had fought valiantly in World War II and 15 years since President Harry Truman ended segregation in the military. It had been almost a decade since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education had dismantled segregated schooling. It had been nearly a decade since the murder of the young Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered at the age of 14. The nation was shocked as his mother allowed photos of his mutilated corpse to circulate.

By August 1963 a young Democrat president had been in office for two and a half years, but he seemed to only give lip service to civil rights, so something had to be done: A March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was announced. In an era in which many homes in the South did not have a telephone or a radio, word spread in churches, by word of mouth, and via broadcast announcements on loudspeakers mounted on the tops of cars.

Marchers listen to speeches during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

Marchers listen to speeches during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Associated Press Photo

No one knew for certain whether crowds would come to demonstrate the depth and energy of the Civil Rights Movement. An all-star cast of civil rights leaders was assembled to speak that day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, opera star Marian Anderson, and folk icons such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed. A Jewish rabbi joined the other speakers including John Lewis (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), and the white president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther. A group of volunteers from New York assembled 80,000 cheese sandwiches for the participants. Providentially the weather was unusually mild with a temperature around 80 degrees, which was particularly helpful for the many participants who arrived in their Sunday best.

The speakers denounced the slow pace of progress towards equality in the country, usually using biblical language in their calls for justice. However, it was King’s address that has gone down as an inspiration, not just for that day, but for the ages. King began by noting that the Founding Fathers talked about all men being created equal and established a constitution that had not been equally applied to minorities. He called this a “promissory note” from the Founders. He observed, “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

Moments before King went on stage, Mahalia Jackson told him to “… tell them about the dream.” She was referring to some of his previous speeches where he had envisioned a colorblind, prosperous America. King extemporaneously added the dream language to his existing speech text.

“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

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King’s speech rang with biblical references to charity and justice. This language is not a form of bland civil religion using symbolic imagery, but rather biblical truth searing of the American conscience, particularly in the television age, when Americans had to confront the brutality and sin of the American South. King provided an alternative a vision of the country where there was healing and reconciliation; but first, freedom and equality must be guaranteed for all.

King concluded with another refrain that he made famous, “Let freedom ring.” He argued that when his dream was realized, it “…will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. …Let freedom ring…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring!”

And when we allow freedom to ring, … we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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