He had come to Washington that day, he said, to "cash a check."
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he announced to the crowd of 250,000 on the National Mall, "they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
And yet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, America had defaulted on its promise, leaving its black citizens "still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." The intention of the rally that day, 50 years ago this week, on August 28, 1963, was to signify solidarity behind the historic civil rights legislation proposed earlier in the year by President Kennedy. But history would ultimately record the event itself as a mere backdrop to a single, monumental speech - one in which the passionate minister-orator stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and compelled a nation to examine its conscience and, at long last, take action. America could no longer afford the luxury of administering itself "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," he said, but, rather, recognize "the fierce urgency of now."
The times were indeed dire; and despite the righteousness of his words, they didn't stop his enemies from considering him a threat. The day after the speech, one FBI agent, assigned to monitor King's activities referred to him as "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation."
While the agent saw King as dangerous, history would mark his leadership as a turning in America's painful struggle with racial justice: President Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the following year.
A half a century later, I believe that the most enduring aspect of Dr. King's sermon was its optimism. As fierce as his admonishment was, he began it by acknowledging the act of a white man, Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation he called "a great beacon light."
As sharp as his criticism of white America for that defaulted check, he said he "refuse[d] to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."
And as bleak as the future may have appeared at the time, he saw only promise.
"I have a dream," he proclaimed at the speech's galvanizing conclusion, "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.' ... 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!"
I hope you'll take a moment to watch the speech again, if only to remind us all about the power of hope, and how it may help us to rise up to the challenges our nation faces today. I also hope that you'll scroll through the slide show we've assembled, as it recounts the historic march to justice that Dr. King so eloquently led fifty years ago this week.