Poll taxes and other discriminatory tactics denied their right to vote. They could not live where they wanted in many parts of the country or attend white schools.
More than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks still lived separate and decidedly unequal lives. Public facilities in many parts of the South were still off limits to people of color. Slight or perceived infractions of apartheid rules could lead to death, regardless of age. Eight years prior, Emmett Till, 14, had been brutally beaten, shot and had his eyes gouged out for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Lynchings were common.
Blacks were fighting hard for equal justice through the courts and through demonstrations. In response, some police turned dogs and fire hoses against unarmed and peaceful demonstrators led by preachers. A horrified nation watched on television.
There had been some victories: The 1954 case of Brown v. the Board of Education overturned the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned "separate but equal" segregation. Public buses in Montgomery, Ala., were desegregated in 1956 after a year-long boycott sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat.
Milestone after milestone, African Americans chipped away at the stubborn walls of inequality, with lunch-counter sit-ins and nonviolent civil disobedience that led to the integration of schools, libraries, swimming pools and other facilities.
But the nation did not yet have a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 to abolish the apartheid system that still existed in many cities and towns.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — at which King delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech — was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, the former president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph had successfully used the plan of a march on Washington in 1941 to pressure then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt into signing the first presidential executive order since Lincoln to protect African American rights. (The march was not held.)
In 1963, Randolph again saw the stagnation of progress toward equality, and he suggested resurrecting the March. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council agreed. Congress at the time was debating President John F. Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill.
In the weeks prior to the March, a paranoid government tapped phones. It surveilled and leaked defamatory information to the press about King's extramarital relations and accused persons close to him of Communist ties, according to Clarence Jones, King's legal counsel and adviser.
"The government shuddered at what (equality) could mean for race relations in America. Because, regardless of whether it is just or not, any ruling body depends on the stability of the status quo. Negroes were second-class citizens, and the machinery of society seemed to hum along just fine under that pretense. Equality may well be good for black people, but no one was sure what a level racial playing field would mean to the nation as a whole," Jones wrote in his 2011 memoir, "Behind the Dream — The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation."
But the government could not derail the March.
As the day drew near, there were dire predictions regarding the March's outcome. The Washington Post predicted violence. Some opposition groups feared that even if marchers were peaceful, racist groups would bring violence.
On Aug. 28, as the crowd of 250,000 people of all races and faiths assembled, government troops flanked the outer edges of the National Mall. The marchers carried placards that expressed their demands: "We demand decent housing now," "We demand voting rights now," "We demand an end to police brutality now."
Though law enforcement surrounded the throng, so did music. The day would be one of celebration, not confrontation. Singers and civil-rights activists Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome," and Pete Seeger performed "Blowing in the Wind." Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan also performed.
Speaker after speaker took to the podium: John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Walter Reuther, president of the AFL-CIO; Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Lewis roused the crowd with his fiery speech: "'One man, one vote' is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.
"To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now."
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson transported the crowd with her rendition of the spiritual "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." The words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, exhorted Americans to "not become a nation of onlookers."
"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence," he said.
And then came "I Have a Dream." King's impassioned 16-minute speech changed the tenor of the Civil Rights Movement from one that not only called attention to wrongs and injustices to one that, with bold imagery, challenged the country to look deep into itself and make real what the nation could really be if it were to embrace its ideals of equality and justice.
When it concluded, "I Have a Dream" entered the history books as the most inspiring speech on civil rights ever delivered in the United States.
On the 50th anniversary of King's iconic oratory, throngs will again assemble in Washington, D.C., to remember his words. An Aug. 28 march to the Lincoln Memorial and King Memorial will be led by veterans of the 1963 march. And President Barack Obama, like King, will speak at the Lincoln Memorial.
Palo Alto will host what organizers say will be the second largest commemoration in the nation on Monday, Aug. 26 (see sidebar). Planners hope participants will celebrate King's words and reflect on what role they might take to further King's dream.
Jones, now a Palo Alto resident, drafted the "I Have a Dream" speech. He is a scholar in residence at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
Jones recalled the hours surrounding the speech in a recent interview with the Weekly.
As King stood framed by the 19-foot-tall statue of Abraham Lincoln, facing the National Mall, he began to recite the first several paragraphs Jones had drafted — ones referring to a promissory note that blacks had come to claim. The idea was taken from an April 1963 encounter with then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Jones recalled. The governor, a supporter of minority rights, had quietly written a promissory note for $100,000 to bail out King and young protesters who had been languishing in the Birmingham jail.
Jones had signed the note, fretting over how to repay it. But he did not have long to worry. Rockefeller had the promissory note stamped "paid," he said.
At the March on Washington, Jones was standing 50 feet away from King on the Lincoln Memorial steps, but he didn't know the entirety of what King was about to say. The day before, Jones had spent hours debating with the various March on Washington stakeholders — labor leaders, clergy and civil rights groups — and incorporating their differing perspectives into a cohesive speech. That night of Aug. 27 he had handed King a draft at the Willard Hotel. The next morning, Jones was too busy scrawling copyright symbols on 3,000 copies of King's finished speech to take the time to read it, he said in memoir.
Now at the March, with everything in place, he listened to King's words. He heard him speak of the check that came back marked "insufficient funds." And King spoke of the "quicksands of racial injustice" and of not "drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
"We cannot turn back," King said, and then paused. Mahalia Jackson, his favorite gospel singer, shouted out a piece of advice: "Tell 'em about the Dream, Martin! Tell 'em about the Dream!"
King continued, but as he neared the end of the written speech, he pushed away the text.
"At that moment I looked to the person standing next to me. 'These people don't know it yet, but they're about ready to go to church,'" Jones recalled.
And then King launched into his vision.
"I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."
As he spontaneously built one metaphor upon another, the effect was transcendent: "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood" ... "my four 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" ... "where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."
"A shudder went through me as Martin finished. I now knew that I had witnessed something beyond my wildest expectations. In truth, it was far beyond Martin's expectations as well," Jones recalled in his memoir.
Surprisingly, the phrase "I have a dream" and even a reference to the dream were not part of King's written text, Jones said. Many of the iconic images King used in the March on Washington speech had come, with some variation, from a speech he had given two months earlier at the "Freedom Rally" in Detroit's Cobo Hall.
King referenced the dream as far back as 1960; and his rousing ending of "Free at last" harks back to a 1952 Republican National Convention speech by Rev. Archibald Carey, a King family friend, who had paraphrased the spiritual hymn, according to Clayborne Carson, executive director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
When King used those same potent images in his June 1963 speech in Detroit, "no one paid much attention," Jones recalled. But they became transformative at the March on Washington because of a confluence of place, time, history, audience energy, imagery and a powerful speaker.
With the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the distance, "He was carrying on a dialogue with Jefferson and Lincoln about the nature of American democracy," Carson said.
The power of the "Dream" speech came from King's delivery and the imagery that showed life as it should be in America, Carson said.
"It painted a picture of what America would be like if we lived up to our ideals of the Declaration of Independence," he added.
King's words have such power because they are very distinct verbal images, Jones said.
"We are visual creatures, and painting pictures with words can be much more powerful and beneficial than explaining concepts with them," he wrote.
"These are not mere words; these are impressions on the retina, plain and simple. The human response upon hearing them is to instantly visualize the tableau, and when listeners do that, they give over a tremendous amount of emotional capital to the speaker. In effect, listeners become invested in the speech."
For white audiences unfamiliar with the use of verbal imagery in the black Southern Baptist tradition, watching King speak on their television sets was a kind of culture shock, Jones said.
"It forced people to listen who never would have listened otherwise."
Carson agreed. He was 19 years old and present at the March.
"It was a very special day in American history. It was the first time you had such a large gathering of black and white people coming together for racial equality," he said.
King's speech was so powerful to both black and white listeners and still resonates today, because he touched on a fundamental nerve related to the nation's founding principles.
"He was discussing if we as a nation were living the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. We're still asking that question," said Carson, author of "Martin's Dream — My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., A Memoir."
Jones reflected on the nation's trajectory at that time.
"Prior to Martin Luther King Jr., America was like a dysfunctional alcoholic and drug addict, addicted and dependent on racial segregation, trying unsuccessfully to kick its habit of addiction. And what Martin Luther King Jr. did was that he forced America's conscience to publicly confront the contradiction between the way in which it treated 12 to 13 percent of its population — people of color — and the principles and precepts enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. And he engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience to enable America to take a journey with him to peacefully recover and reclaim its soul and thereby redeem the promise in our founding documents.
"America today is substantially the way it is because of a fundamental transformation that we went through under the leadership of this extraordinary man," he said.
King's legacy of nonviolence is directly responsible for the peaceful enjoyment and prosperity in America today, Jones and Carson said.
When King received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, the theme of his acceptance speech was that "it was either non-violence or non-existence. It was either non-violence or co-annihilation," Jones said.
"I think very few people in Silicon Valley believe that there is a line that goes from Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 or Mississippi in 1964 or the Voting Rights Act — there's a line that goes from those places right up to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, or right up to the headquarters of Google in Mountain View, or right up to Facebook. They don't see that. As I said last year to a group of J.P. Morgan Chase executives, you may not believe it, but your ability to have quiet enjoyment of your life, to manage your customers, your clients' funds, to send your children to private schools, to be able to be significant managers of one of the greatest financial institutions, there's a line that runs from Birmingham, Ala., right through 277 Park Ave. and along that line, is a man's name called Martin Luther King, Jr."
King knew there was no way that 12 percent of the population was going to impose arguments for racial equality, no matter how valid, on 88 percent of the population. It simply wasn't going to happen, Jones said.
"There were some of our colleagues on the left, what I call the black nationalists, who were counseling political suicide. They said, 'All you have to do is get a rifle and a gun and kick the white man's butt. That's the only way you're going to change the country.'
"That's a prescription for political suicide. No way 12 percent of the population, assuming that every member of the population was armed, was going to overthrow 88 percent of the population without an enormous legacy of bloodshed or violence. Dr. King's political brilliance was to know that his task was to get the 88 percent, the majority of white people, to come to see that it was in its self interest that racial segregation end or that we be free," Jones said.
Just 18 days after the Dream speech, an act of racially motivated terrorism rocked the nation. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four little girls in Birmingham, Ala. That horror was followed in November 1963 by Kennedy's assassination. Those events galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and months later helped push the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
King's assassination on April 4, 1968, became a turning point, after which the white establishment began to seriously weigh whether it wanted to fight an impending race war.
"When Dr. King was assassinated, the country in multiple cities erupted in violence. It was anger, collectively expressed as I heard it on that day: It's one thing for them to go do something that XYZ, but if they're gonna — if they're going to kill Dr. King — if they are going to kill Dr. King, that's it.
"And so, there was such seething anger, and had it not been for people like Andrew Young, and to a lesser extent Jesse Jackson Jr. and a number of other African American clergy across the country walking through places like Watts in Los Angeles, Bedford Sty and Harlem in New York, Cleveland, South Side in Chicago, this country would have erupted in flames," he said.
If King were alive today, he would be disappointed with how some parts of the dream have not yet been realized, Jones and Carson both said. He would be deeply distressed at the inequalities in education. (See sidebar.) And he would despair at black-on-black violence in cities of poverty.
"For that, he would weep," Jones said of the latter.
Carson said there is something deeper and more fundamental that Americans must address: trust among all people.
"That's the heart of the problem — the basic trust you need to have in a multicultural democracy. You need to establish an understanding that democracy is an act of trust: 'I will trust the collective.' Once that trust breaks down, then it becomes very difficult to have a democratic society," he said.
"Race still remains the 800-pound gorilla that sits in the living room of every household in America, black and white. People are squeamish; people are uncomfortable; people don't quite know how to talk about it. They don't know whether when they speak if they are politically correct or incorrect. Still, it's an area that is probably only equal in its uncomfortableness to discussion about sex. Something about race makes people so, so uncomfortable," he said.
Fast-forward to May 4, 2013. Jones was the keynote speaker and guest at the commemoration of the Birmingham Bar Association. The irony did not elude him.
"I thought that this is really strange. Here I am. They knew that I was Dr. King's personal lawyer, and they knew that at that time in April, May 1963 that as a lawyer for Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, legally speaking, my foot was up their behind 24/7. So I had to be not the most popular person. And yet, they decided to invite me to be the keynote speaker on Saturday evening, and there in a room where 50 years ago it wouldn't have happened. It would've been segregated. I would not have even been in the room. They played videos of Birmingham 50 years ago: police dogs, fire hoses, Dr. King in jail.
"Some of you may be old enough to remember when cigarettes were advertised on television," Jones recalled telling the attorneys. "They had a popular brand called Virginia Slims, and one of their tag lines was: 'You've come a long way, baby.' We can all look at that video and know that Birmingham, Ala., has come a long way, baby, since 1963."
On his way from the Birmingham Airport, Jones passed a plaque that read:
An afternoon at a lunch counter. A thousand arms linked at the elbows. A line of fire hoses. A pack of German shepherds. A letter from a Birmingham jail. A children's crusade. A devastating explosion. A world what would never be the same. The year was 1963 — the year the world woke up.
"Isn't that beautiful?" Jones said.
The Dream that inspired a nation made it possible for Americans to elect a black president in 2008, he added. Although it did not usher in a post-racial America, Obama's election reflected the very best in America at that time, Jones said.
"You know what the election of November 2008 was? You and I and everybody talks about the election of the first African American president. That was just the form that it took. It was the first national referendum since the Civil War on race in America. It's the first time there was a national referendum when people went to the polls.
"It's like they put a proposition before the American people: Are you ready in 2008 knowing the legacy of slavery, the Civil War — are we now ready to vote for an African American based on his apparent qualifications as the overriding issue separate and apart from his race?
"It was the high point of America reaching down deep for its soul."
WATCH IT ONLINE
Clarence Jones, speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., talks about events surrounding the "I Have a Dream" speech and the state of King's Dream today. Watch the video on Palo Alto Online.