It was 54 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington. So how much do you know about the speech, and the events that led up to it?
The speech was delivered to an estimated 250,000 people who came to Washington, D.C., to march for civil rights. And they weren’t disappointed by the iconic event.
Here are 10 basic facts about the March and the events that led to the Speech.
1. The official event was called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a nationally televised address calling for a drive for more civil rights. That same night, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi.
2. Marches had been proposed before the Kennedy speech and Evers’ killing, but the events forced the issue. Kennedy met with civil rights leaders such as Dr. King, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and student leader John Lewis about a proposed march. Kennedy signaled his approval publicly in July when he was assured it would be a peaceful event.
3. The March was not universally supported by activists. One prominent objector was Malcolm X. The organizers also didn’t agree on all the issues, but they did agree that blacks and whites should march together at the event. Another prominent objector was Strom Thurmond.
4. It also wasn’t the first threatened March on Washington by civil rights leaders. In 1941, a march was being organized to demand desegregation in the U.S. military as World War II approached. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the federal government and defense industries in June 1941, which averted a march that may have involved 100,000 people.
5. People almost never clearly heard Dr. King’s speech. An expensive sound system was installed for the event, but it was sabotaged right before it. Attorney General Robert Kennedy enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the system.
6. William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois, the co-founder of the NAACP, died on the day before the event at the age of 95 in Ghana. Roy Wilkins asked the marchers to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence.
7. Of the estimated 250,000 people who attended the March, about 60,000 were white. People came from all over the country, and few arrests were reported.
8. There were 10 speakers on the official program for the public event at the Lincoln Memorial: All of them were men. Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke right before Dr. King. There were no speakers after Dr. King, as organizers led the audience in a pledge and gave a benediction.
9. Dr. King almost didn’t give the “I Have a Dream” part of the “I Have A Dream” speech. Singer Mahalia Jackson urged Dr. King to tell the audience “about the dream,” and Dr. King went into an improvised section of the speech.
10. The person who wound up with the typewritten speech given by Dr. King is retired college basketball coach George Raveling. A college basketball player at Villanova, organizers saw Raveling in the crowd and asked him to be a bodyguard on stage. He was standing next to Dr. King on the stage and he decided to ask him for the paper copy of the speech and Dr. King obliged. Raveling has the speech locked away in a safe place.