“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Though these lines might well sound like they came from President Obama’s inaugural speech this past Tuesday, they are in fact, a great deal older, though they were spoken within earshot of where Obama took the Oath of Office.
These words are part of one of the most well-known speeches in American history: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King gave the speech during the 1963 March on Washington, during which civil rights leaders attempted to raise awareness about and encourage the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
Perhaps the most moving thing about this famous speech is that many of its best-known moments (including the phrase “I have a dream” itself) were never formally written down or even rehearsed. Midway through his speech, King put down his pre-prepared notes and drew on his roots as a Baptist preacher to improvise the last several minutes. Many of what would later become some of the most famous lines in American history were simply ideas he pulled off the top of his head.
Though it is this speech that is often remembered most about his career, King’s entry into the public eye came several years earlier, from his involvement in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where Rosa Parks gained notoriety for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. After Parks’ arrest, King led a city-wide boycott of the bus systems in order to bring national attention to the case and put pressure on the government and bus companies to end segregation.
This marked the first example of what became one of the hallmarks of King’s involvement in the civil rights movement: non-violent protest, a form of civil disobedience that King adapted from Gandhi’s demonstrations in India. The philosophy behind this method of protest was to highlight injustice by making it impossible for the media and government to ignore or color it. The method worked, as it not only caught the world’s attention, but also gained a wave of support for the civil rights movement and earned King the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement is one that’s difficult to ignore, not only as one of the South’s largest cities, but also as King’s birthplace, the home to a number of historically black colleges, and the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the organization founded and led by King to fight for racial equality. Atlanta is also one of a handful of cities in which King was arrested for organizing demonstrations; in Atlanta, he was arrested for arranging sit-ins. Despite these incidents and a few violent outbursts, Atlanta city officials did their best to keep order and, as such, Atlanta was often referred to as “the city too busy to hate.”
Tech itself played an important role in the civil rights movement. Tech students protested in 1955 when the Board of Regents told them they couldn’t play a school with a black team member in football, and in the early 1960s, Tech became the first school in the South to desegregate without a court order.
Today, the heroic life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated on the third Monday of every January (in order to fall near King’s birthday, January 15th). Though King was assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t formalized as a federal holiday until the mid-1980’s, and wasn’t recognized in every state by its current name until 2000.