“I Have a Dream”

An angry crowd milled around the bombed-out house. Some people yelled threats at city officials checking on the damage. The house belonged to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. On January 30, 1956, the Montgomery bus boycott was still underway. King had gone to a boycott meeting. While he was away someone had planted a bomb on his porch. King's wife, Coretta, and daughter, Yolanda, who had been in the house, were unharmed. But the crowd of angry blacks was in no mood to listen to pleas for calm.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came out on the porch. He looked at the angry people on his front lawn. He knew some were ready to tear the city apart. But his face showed sadness, not anger or fear.

"We are not advocating violence," he said. "We want to love our enemies...If I am stopped, our work will not stop, for what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just and God is with us."

The crowd grew silent. King's house had been damaged. His family could have been killed. Yet he stood there talking of love and forgiveness. A man's voice broke the silence: "God bless you," he cried. "Amen!" said the others.

King proved his leadership during the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. The boycott was the start of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That January night, King gave the movement its most basic ideas.

PUTTING IDEAS INTO ACTION

King believed that black and white people should resist laws that they thought unjust. If necessary, he thought, they should disobey such laws. But King also said that they should be ready to accept punishment for breaking such laws. In some cases, they should even go to jail.

King called for nonviolent resistance (defying a law peacefully). He did not believe in angry threats. He did not believe in fighting back when attacked. King thought the civil rights movement should try to end injustice by appealing to the conscience of the nation.

King drew his ideas from several sources. He learned love for one's enemies from his religious heritage. King learned about civil disobedience (opposition to a law through refusal to obey) from the writings of a 19th-century American, Henry David Thoreau (tho-ROH). Thoreau had written about resistance to laws dealing with slavery. Now King used Thoreau's ideas to fight racial injustice.

The life of Mohandas Gandhi (mo-HAHN-dus GON-dee) inspired King. Gandhi had led India's struggle for independence from Great Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Under Gandhi's leadership, millions of Indians had refused to buy British goods. Many had refused to pay British taxes. These were forms of nonviolent protest. From Gandhi, King had learned how to build a movement based on such ideas.

King's political and religious training began in his youth. His father was the minister of a leading black church in Atlanta, Georgia. Young Martin did not know poverty as a boy. But he did know the meaning of segregation firsthand.

PUTTING FAITH TO THE TEST

At Morehouse College in Atlanta, King received training to become a minister. After graduating from Morehouse, he continued his studies in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But he wanted to do more than care for souls. He felt it was his duty to do something to end segregation, and poverty too.

King used the fame he won during the bus boycott to wage a vigorous campaign against segregation. From 1956 to 1964, King was arrested 29 times for protesting the unfair treatment of black people.

The year 1963 was a special one for African Americans. It was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first step toward ending slavery. Yet 100 years after freedom, black people still suffered from injustices. In Washington, D.C., President John F. Kennedy spoke out against unfair treatment of blacks. He sent an important civil rights bill to Congress. But Congress delayed acting on the bill. Civil rights leaders thought it was time to put pressure on Congress. They planned a big demonstration in the nation's capital.

The March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963. It was a hot, clear summer day. Marchers came in car pools, buses, trains, and planes. By noon, 250,000 people had formed around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Affluent merchants marched beside poor farmers. Northerners marched beside Southerners. Blacks marched beside whites.

PUTTING HOPE BEFORE DESPAIR

Millions of people watched the march live on television. Stars of the entertainment world performed. Then, after several speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. was introduced. He spoke of how black people hoped for full equality. Now was the time, he said, for America to fulfill its promises of democracy.

"I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . .

I have a dream, that my four little 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.

I have a dream . . ."

Over and over again he invoked his dream for America. The crowd listened breathlessly to the rolling words. King ended the speech with the hope that one day all Americans would know the meaning of an old black spiritual:

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty. We are free at last!"

For a moment there was silence. Some people wept openly. Others were too moved to respond. Then the silence was replaced by thunderous applause.

The next year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work. He continued to lead the struggle for civil rights, but he was challenged by other black leaders. By 1965, new leaders were impatient with King's call for nonviolence. They were angry and defiant. "Black power" was their rallying cry.

But King stood behind the idea of nonviolence. In 1968, King broadened his concerns. He organized a Poor People's Campaign to attack poverty. He went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers'strike there.

On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin, James Earl Ray. King was 39 years old. When news of his death spread, black communities across America exploded in rage. Riots in 100 cities across American left $45 million in destroyed property, 27,000 people arrested, and 46 dead.

Many people found a bitter truth in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder. They believed it proved that love and forgiveness were useless against hatred. But others remembered his dream. For them, the fulfillment of that dream remained as the work for all Americans.

From American Adventures by Ira Peck. Copyright (c) 1991 by Scholastic Inc. Reproduced by permission.

  • Subjects:
    African American History, Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Equality, Fairness, Justice, Civil Rights Movement, African American, Tolerance and Acceptance, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences
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