Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thousands Mark 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's Historic Speech - 2003-08-23

Thousands of people gathered in Washington Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech, a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States.

Forty years ago 250,000 people marched on Washington, calling the nation's attention to the injustice and discrimination black Americans faced because of the color of their skin.

Standing below the towering statue of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered an eloquent call for equality at a time when blacks in the United States were banned from many public schools, forced to eat in separate restaurants and had to pay taxes and pass literacy tests to vote.

"I have a dream," said Martin Luther King. "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 today."

On the 40th anniversary of that famous speech people came to Washington to commemorate the historic day and to chart the future of the civil rights movement.

More than 100 organizations with a diverse mix of activists and causes gathered once again at the Lincoln Memorial, which pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the American president who abolished slavery.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who is the only one of the main speakers at the original march still alive today, says Dr. King's speech helped bring about some of the most important social legislation in America's history.

"The words of Dr. King are as clear to me today as they were 40 years ago," he said. "Dr. King's words not only freed and liberated a people, they freed and liberated an entire nation."

A year after his original speech, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law made segregation in public places illegal, required employers to provide equal work opportunities and protected every American's right to vote.

In 1968 Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, called her husband's speech a "definitive and inspiring statement of the American dream."

"What Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking about on that day of dreams was the redemption of America's soul and how we could honor the long dishonored promise of our democracy," said Coretta King. "The I Have a Dream speech was not only an eloquent appeal for interracial brotherhood, but a cry for justice and an affirmation of nonviolence as a method for achieving needed social reforms."

The son of the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King III, says some of his father's dream has been realized, but 40 years after his famous speech more progress is still needed.

"We still have some obstacles to overcome," he said. "That is why we marched today because we have not created yet that freedom, justice and equality that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. But it can happen. We know that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first steps. We are engaged in a 15-month mobilization registering and educating people so that they will vote. Registration with education creates participation."

Organizers say the 40th anniversary event will kick off a voter registration drive designed to bring millions of new people to the polls for the November 2004 presidential elections.