Martin Luther King's dream 50 years later

By Rachel Bunn, The Herald-Times

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

William Wiggins hopped a train in Louisville bound for Washington, D.C., in late August 1963.

A young minister working in Hopkinsville, Ky., he traveled back to his hometown to catch the train for what was described in promotional advertising as a “march for jobs and freedom.”

He made his way to the National Mall, running into three friends from college. He stood in the heart of the crowd, in view of the podium on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, behind the tallest man he had ever seen: basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain.

“In a positive sense, it was a motley crew,” Wiggins said of the crowd of marchers.

The crowd listened to speakers including future U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and singers Marian Anderson, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

But it was the last speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech was the highlight of the day.

Even 50 years later, Wiggins, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, has the same reaction when he looks back.

“Emotionally, I’m full,” Wiggins said. “That is something that still resonates.”

Background of the march

A march on Washington was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin, an organizer of one of the earliest Freedom Rides.

Throughout the 1940s, the pair tried to organize several marches on Washington, but were mostly unsuccessful.

In 1962, Randolph and Rustin began working with other civil rights leaders on a march that would combine several organizations’ goals for jobs and freedom, according to a history of the Congress of Racial Equality on the organization’s website. This would become the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on Aug. 28, 1963.

Randolph was the head of the march, and was joined by organizers known collectively as the “Big Six”: James Farmer, president of CORE; John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP; and Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League. Rustin was a deputy organizer.

As late as July 1963, President John F. Kennedy asked organizers to reconsider the march. They refused.

The initial goal was to have about 100,000 people march on Washington; more than 200,000 people ended up attending the march.

“To gather that many people, without the benefit of cellphones or the Internet, is amazing,” said Beverly Calender-Anderson, director of Bloomington’s Safe and Civil City program.

All of the Big Six were scheduled to speak, though James Farmer was stuck in a Louisiana jail for protesting and unable to attend the march.

King was the last speaker to give remarks.

“They were a call to action,” Calender-Anderson said of the speakers. “They were a call to action for everybody.”

Many there considered King’s “I Have a Dream” speech the highlight of the day. Calender-Anderson considers it one of the best speeches of the 20th century.

“I don’t know if we have any leaders today that have the oratory skills of Dr. King,” Calender-Anderson said. “Just the way he spoke, you could really wrap your mind around what he was saying.”

Though named for the last five minutes of the speech, King spoke for about 17 minutes to encourage those listening to continue to fight.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now,” King said. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

He noted that 1963 was the beginning of the action, building to the final crescendo where he listed his dreams, including desire for basic rights and a loftier end to racism.

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said. “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Where we are now

Still, 50 years later, much of King’s vision has not been achieved.

Calender-Anderson pointed to continuing struggles with voting rights and equal opportunity in education, problems that King also addressed, as well as rights for gay citizens and homelessness.

“I think it’s important that we can look back and realize that we have made progress, and also realize what it will take to keep us moving forward,” Calender-Anderson said.

Greg Tourner, chairman of the Bloomington Commission on the Status of Black Males, agreed there is plenty left to do, particularly on the local level.

“There have been some gains,” Tourner said. “Have we reached the point Martin Luther King talks about in his speech? We have not. We still have work left to do in our community.”

For black males in particular, health and criminal justice are ongoing issues. The commission organizes health fairs and works with youth mentoring through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

King’s dream might not be achievable in its entirety.

“I think it’s prophetic,” Wiggins said. “It is a beginning. Progress, freedom — you don’t get to an endpoint of it. You can always do better.”

But, Wiggins said, there was one time where he felt the vision of King’s speech had been, in part at least, achieved: the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2008.

“I felt a great sense of pride and a great sense of progress, and I thought, ‘This is what I saw there,’” Wiggins said.

Singer another local connection to 1963 march

Camilla Williams an operatic soprano who later worked as a professor of voice at Indiana University, performed the national anthem at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She was the first black woman to sing with a major opera, making her debut with the New York City Opera in May 1946.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Williams was active in the modern civil rights movement, performing not only at the March on Washington, but also at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the following year.

In 1977, she was the first black professor of voice at Indiana University, which she retired from in 1997. She died at her home in Bloomington in 2012 at the age of 92.