August 28 is a great day in the US. Fifty years ago on this day, also a Wednesday, the capital city saw a mass demonstration known as March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Martin Luther King delivered his legendary speech “I Have a Dream” at the pedestal of the monument to Abraham Lincoln.
It had been a hundred years by that time since Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation was adopted. Yet the life of former slaves and their descendents had not changed much. They were treated as second-rate people in the country’s south. The race segregation system did not allow Afro-Americans to receive a quality education and medical care, to launch private businesses on a par with the whites, to be nominated for elective offices, and, in some cases, even to vote. Twenty one states had a law that banned interracial marriages. In the mid-20th century, the life of the world’s leading democracy was permeated with xenophobic barbarity.
The situation began to change in the early 1960s. The newly-elected President John Kennedy proclaimed a program of reforms, but was not exactly rushing to carry it out. At the same time, the nonviolent desegregation movement encountered increasingly stiff resistance. Attacks on activists, murders, and terrorist acts were on the rise. In the South, the police openly sided with racists. This necessitated a big peaceful protest, and preparations for one began in December 1962.
There were more than enough obstacles. Even not all black leaders accepted the march: the Afro-American nationalist Malcolm X called this action a “farce” and “circus.” The FBI chief Edgar Hoover had never hidden his hostile attitude. Activists were receiving murder threats all over the country. Five air flights were canceled in the morning of August 28, following a series of bombing threats. Uncertainty was also rife among the rank-and-file participants who were heading for Washington on buses, cars, and trains. One of them recalled later: “People were afraid. We didn’t know what was in store for us. We secretly prayed that nothing violent would happen.” Everybody feared provocations and wide-scale unrest. A day before the rally somebody had damaged the sound amplifiers, but they were repaired on the instructions of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Prisons and hospitals were being urgently prepared to receive inmates. Tens of thousands of policemen and soldiers were concentrated in the capital.
In spite of all fears, the march was held. Blacks and whites, Protestants, Catholics, and Judeans marched together. Martin Luther King was one of the last to speak. At the end of his speech, he digressed from the prepared text and delivered his famous oratorical improvisation “I Have a Dream.”
John Kennedy was so much struck by what he saw and heard that he speeded up as much as he could the drawing-up of the Bill of Civil Rights which was passed the next year after the president’s death.
The march was a momentous event by definition, but King’s speech imparted a revolutionary spirit to it. Actually, August 28, 1963, became a new birthday for the United States.
And if it is not clear to somebody what Ukraine has to do with this, let them just read these liners:
“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.’
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, 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!”