50 Feet From MLK

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

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I had not intended to join the March on Washington 50 years ago. None of my friends planned to go. Much of the white press was in ferment, fearing it would invite violence. Civil rights activists fretted that any incident would damage the cause. Congress was on edge. President John F. Kennedy had several thousand unseen troops on standby in the suburbs, and if there was a breath of incitement by hell-raisers, the authorities were primed to cut off the sound system.

Yet the closer we came to the big day, the more I felt I just had to join the people summoned to hear Martin Luther King Jr. at a mass celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The numbers turned out to be more than double the 100,000 anticipated, most of them African-Americans. So at the last moment I called some dear relatives in Washington, D.C., David and Nan Robinson, and begged a bed. "Sure, by all means" was their answer. "You're the 19th person who's called with a similar request." I was glad to sleep on their sofa, and my luck was in.

The next morning I caught a bus to an assembly point for marchers and as I exited it, I got mixed up with a small group of men and women. I ended up on a special bus being taken swiftly through the hurrying throngs. It just so happened I was in the company of a whole entourage of stars headed to the podium: Burt Lancaster, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, James Garner, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and other celebrities who'd jetted in from Los Angeles. When the bus emptied out near the stage, I stayed with them, not stopped by security asking who the hell I was and where did I think I was going. After all, I was just an unknown immigrant from Canada and here I was just 50 feet from King about to give a speech for the ages.

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Nearby were the icons of the civil rights movement: the tearful director A. Philip Randolph, who had the idea for the march. John Lewis, who'd been beaten and jailed in the nonviolent, early '60s student Freedom Rides campaigning for equal legal and voting rights, and who is now a Georgia congressman. And the singer Mahalia Jackson! She gave the greatest performance of any entertainer I've ever witnessed in my life. In her unique style, she brought the emotions of the masses to a single point of light as they chanted King's name. As he began to speak, she called out, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!" He'd been alluding to his dream off and on that summer, but that day he soared to a climax, mesmerizing us all. His words resonate with me still.

They are familiar now but I can never forget their impact in that memorable spot. He had a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. That dream was one that I have long believed in, and one that was part of the inspiration that caused me to move from my home country to the United States. When he said that we should all "sit down together at the table of brotherhood," I found that resonated with my own experience in this country.

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Who could not be exalted by the poetry of his rhetoric as he began sentence after sentence with the phrase "I have a dream"? He talked of his hope and faith, that with this faith we would all be able to "hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope" and transform "the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood" such that our children will "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." With this faith, he said, "we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day." As he put it, at some point in the future, "all of God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"

Fifty years on, the words remain incandescent in cold prose; in speech, the multitudes were seized with a sudden joy by the cadences of an inspired preacher at the pinnacle of a life of sacrifice (and so soon to be martyred). Everyone knew the experience would be a part of the rest of our lives. They have remained the most inspiring words I've ever heard and nourished in me the desire to participate in the public life of America in whatever capacity I might.