EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech known as “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement. The 17-minute speech was a fervent call to end racism and an expressive appeal for civil, social and economic rights for Black people.

The speech, during which King repeatedly invoked his profound dreams of freedom for all, has long been considered one of the most dynamic moments of the civil rights movement. As we prepare to mark MLK Day, we asked eight area residents to reflect on a particular segment of that speech, what it means to them and how its message endures today.

Read more about this project: How Martin Luther King Jr. Day feels different after ‘a year of revelation’ 

Kirsten Marjerison photo

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby College

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I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

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Cheryl Townsend Gilkes remembers watching Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech on television 58 years ago.

She was 15 and sitting with her parents and two younger brothers in their Middleborough, Massachusetts, home that day, Aug. 28, 1963.

“I was in high school and so there was no way my parents would let me go to the March on Washington,” Gilkes recalled Friday. “In 1963 I was getting ready to go into my junior year of high school. I remember watching the speech and just all of us sitting there and not saying a word.”

When King got to the “Free at last…” part, it was a “Wow” moment, Gilkes recalled.

“I was just sitting in awe,” she said. “I don’t even remember what my father’s comments were.”

Gilkes, now 73 and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby College, had met King when she was 4 or 5 when he preached at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gilkes’ father was deacon and director of youth fellowship at the church, where Gilkes has for many years been assistant pastor of special projects. When she grew older, she saw King speak at civil rights rallies, and later, she met King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, at various events.

A member of the Colby faculty since 1987, Gilkes is author of two books, as well as articles and essays on religion, race and social change and the life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American writer, educator, historian, sociologist and civil rights activist.

Gilkes grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the end of her freshman year in high school, her family moved to Middleborough. She remembers that while in elementary school, her teachers were not allowed to teach anything not in the curriculum, but some of her favorite teachers would leave literature about King and Black history in the back of the classroom for the children to read. Gilkes was fascinated by and in awe of King, whom she had first read about when she was in the fifth grade.

Gilkes said King, a student of sociology, spent years working on a problem he identified as the disproportionate poverty that African Americans experience — and which he spoke about in the first three paragraphs of his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1968, King worked on behalf of garbage workers who were making less than minimum wage. In Gilkes’ freshman year in high school, the minimum wage went to $1.30 an hour and she said garbage workers were making less than that and trying to support a family and pay a mortgage.

“Dr. King was in the process of working on the Poor People’s Campaign, making poverty across racial lines an issue, recognizing that poverty in a land of plenty was a problem,” Gilkes said. “He was still working on it when he died, and we have to understand that.”

While reading the first three paragraphs of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Gilkes says the problems King identified then continue to exist now. The passing of civil and voting rights acts helped to change the country, but the people who opposed civil rights never gave up and “we remain right in that whirlwind,” Gilkes said.

People who are poor and Black are segregated in certain cities and the white poor are scattered in rural areas of society, she said.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that the poor in America are highly segregated from one another, still,” she said.

The rampage on the U.S. Capitol also shows that people are not connected with one another, according to Gilkes.

She reflected on King’s words, then and now.

“Basically, what is happening now is that the Black Lives movement is still dramatizing shameful conditions,” she said.

For many years, Gilkes has attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Boston, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, she will not be there this year. On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she will preach at Colby where she plans, fittingly, to cite Coretta Scott King’s favorite sermon — the sermon King’s husband preached at Gilkes Church in Cambridge decades ago.

— Amy Calder, Morning Sentinel

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Michael Frett

Hallowell City Councilor

————

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.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

————

Michael Frett, Hallowell’s Ward 2 city councilor and former director of the state Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Standards, believes when Dr. King spoke on August 28,1963, he was appealing to the soul and integrity of America.

“It was his view that the civil rights movement had reached the point where all could finally agree that economic and civil liberties were ‘unalienable rights,’ to which all people were entitled. While I and millions of others, wholeheartedly accept this as a given, there are still many Americans who prefer to parse the meaning of those words, and exclude ‘others.’ Recent events, in my opinion, represent, among other things, a culmination of their position on the matter.

“In his speech, Dr. King referenced the Negro people. I submit that the intent of his words extends to all who seek the ‘American Experience;’ … raising a family, if desired; pursuing honest employment; acquiring a decent place to live; or, exploring personal pursuits. I know and have known, many wonderful people who sought such dreams. Some have achieved theirs, others are still working on it, and some haven’t a clue as to where or how to reach theirs. Nonetheless, that’s what dreams are all about, and it’s all OK.

“I wish Dr. King’s dream were today’s reality, but sadly, it’s not. I look around and see that today’s inequities are based not solely on the color of one’s skin, but are steeped in regionalism, culture, sexual preference, political affiliation and economic status, to name a few. Intolerance, ignorance and self-centeredness are true roadblocks to achieving, for all, a guarantee to those ‘unalienable rights,’ that we hold so dear.  As great as we perceive this country to be, there is still a ways to go, before we’re willing to judge a person solely on ‘the content of their character.’

“While I am disheartened that full equality of treatment toward others has not yet occurred in our country, I’m optimistic that it may yet be achieved. This is because of the countless numbers of people I know, and have known who, like myself, whether at their employment, during community gatherings, or while engaged in social activation, endeavor in many ways to ensure that all people, are treated with dignity and fairness.

“As simplistic as that may sound, I submit, it’s not a bad place for making a good start.”

— Sam Shepherd, Kennebec Journal

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Lilly Bohner

Activist and organizer

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We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. 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. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

————

After reading an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Lilly Bohner, 21, connected King’s ideas to goals of the Black Lives Matter movement that she participated in throughout the summer.

More than 50 years later, while some barriers have been broken, equality still hasn’t been achieved, she said. The rhetoric around racial justice is as prevalent today as it was in 1963.

“Even though it’s supposed to be equal, we know it’s not. Racism isn’t over,” Bohner, 21, said. “White privilege is a thing, and you can’t deny it now.”

Bohner recalled the years she spent living in central Maine and the encounters she’s had, including being called racial slurs and being told to “go back to your country.” A 2017 graduate of Waterville Senior High School, Bohner took to the streets of Winslow in June to support and speak at a Black Lives Matter march through town and advocate for changes in law enforcement. She moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, two months ago.

Bohner said on Thursday that she felt inspired to organize the demonstration after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died on May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis when Derek Chauvin, a police officer, kneeled on the back of his neck for almost nine minutes.

“When I first saw it, I bawled my eyes out. It was worse seeing people in my area seeing that and saying things like ‘(Floyd) deserved it’ because of his past. If he were white, it would have been completely different.”

In her frustration, she pulled together the march that went though Fort Halifax Park to Waterville City Hall. She participated in three demonstrations over the summer, including the one she organized, as well as Augusta and Rockland.

“Today we have to deal with racism, stereotypes, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and police brutality. Just that in general should show that racism is not dead,” she said.

Though months have passed since the demonstrations, she said that the reminder that white privilege exists became apparent during last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. She recalled the amount of law enforcement that was present during the Black Lives Matter events around the country and cited a Time magazine report stating that the vast majority — 93% — of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been peaceful.

“Education is everything. I don’t think the country can move forward if we don’t educate people on how Black people feel,” Bohner said. “If you don’t understand how Black people feel, then you’re not going to understand the movement and why we feel this way and what we’re doing.”

She is hopeful that with education, change can happen, though there is plenty of work to do in the meantime.

“Buildings can be replaced, but our lives can’t and we’re dying all the time,” Bohner said. “There are things that we need to work on, and we’re not going to be quiet until things actually, really change. To this day, we’re fighting.”

— Taylor Abbott, Morning Sentinel

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Bill Burney

Former mayor of Augusta

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But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

————

Bill Burney, Augusta’s former mayor and retired field office director for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said this section of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonated with him, particularly with the coalition that was represented “at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that coalition has many races, many faiths, all classes of Americans there.”

That is something Burney said he experienced growing up in Augusta around the time of King’s speech.

“My parents were very active in the NAACP and the movement itself. I can remember, and most recently I found some documents, where my parents had gone around to raise just a little bit of money to buy a newspaper ad fighting for the fair housing law in Maine,” he said. “When I looked through the list of names from all over central Maine — everybody gave just a dollar — it was that same sort of broad coalition.

“Personally, I can reflect on his acknowledgement of that coalition there that day that came forward to push for equal rights, equal housing, equal job opportunities — all things Dr. King mentions in his speech were alive here in Maine. I was able to witness some of that,” Burney added. “I think some of the tragedy of this is that (speech) was (given in) August, and in September, four little girls went to Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, and got blown up. It was less than a month after that speech. It draws attention to how intense the situation was in the ’60s.”

Even in these turbulent times, he does think the U.S. has the ability to find unity.

“I think we do have to come together as a country, obviously, and I think if we begin to physically build up our country — our infrastructure, provide jobs and education for people — that will be the soul force he (King) talked about,” Burney said. “In that case, he was talking about the resistance movement, but he also talks about a spirit people had and people can have that going forward.

“We need a common goal, which is to build up, I feel, the infrastructure of our country,” he added. “In that, we will find a togetherness, which we really need.”

Working together is something Burney has seen unite people. During segregation in the 1930s and 1940s, his father came from Georgia to Maine to work in the paper mill, bringing with him his brothers.

“In that common labor, that common enterprise, from that evolved a common respect,” Burney said. “And our country will be stronger when our roads and bridges are stronger, when our schools are stronger and rebuilt.

“All these common things America is well known for, I think will help us come together again by working side by side and not working side against side,” he added. “If we address and do some of these things — and it will take some time because we are generationally challenged in skilled trades, in education, in poverty and work ethic, so it may take a generation or two — it will be a worthwhile endeavor.”

— Rob Montana, Kennebec Journal

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Shukri Abdirahman

Activist, student and immigrant

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There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

————

Shukri Abdirahman is a 21-year-old junior at the University of Maine at Farmington living in Lewiston. Her parents are from Gedo, Somalia, and fled to Kenya after their home was bombed in the early ’90s during the country’s ongoing civil war. Abdirahman spent the first nine years of her life in Dadaab, Kenya’s largest refugee camp, before coming to the United States.

Over the 2020 summer, Abdirahman was active in peaceful Black Lives Matter rallies throughout Maine and organized her first BLM protest in Lewiston. The international and global studies and anthropology student offered her reflections to the Sun Journal on the accompanying segment of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“My name is Shukri Abdirahman. I am an activist, student, poet, educator and most importantly a Muslim Somali Bantu woman. I believe in equality for all! Justice for all! I’m from the biggest refugee camp at the time in Kenya. I came to the United States when I was 9 years old.

“I would like to acknowledge we have come a long way since MLK’s era. A lot has changed, but a lot has also not changed. The extreme practices of racism have somewhat ended, but it has not truly been reformed. I believe this country hides its hatred for African Americans through police violence.

“People or society will often ask this question or make a statement such as ‘We’re equal now and slavery, any form of injustices, have ended a long time ago.’ As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has stated, no matter what era or century we’re in, we can never be satisfied as long as the Black man and woman die unjustly at the hands of police brutality and unspeakable horrors done to African Americans in this country.

“We can never stop until the white world supremacy ends. We can never stop until a Black man or woman can hold a position to be the first to do something and have their race attached to their accomplishments. The fight for justice will never stop until a Black man or woman can freely walk down a street without harassment or simply being killed.

“I personally believe the devotees of civil rights will never truly stop until all people are treated equally. The Black individual has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of the oppressor and that oppressor is the white man.”

Abdirahman said that she doesn’t want to sugarcoat her opinion of how she views the current socio-political climate. She hopes that by sharing her opinion, people will feel provoked to do their own research about racial disparities so that we can engage in more informed and productive conversations.

Andrea Swiedom, Franklin Journal

Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Spencer Emerson

Offensive assistant football coach at Georgetown University

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I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

————

Spencer Emerson, 27, attended high school in Lewiston and Auburn, taught school and coached locally after college, and will leave soon to become an offensive assistant football coach at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

He remembers thinking about the idea of the American dream, that anybody can “pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” when he was very young.

“My first thought as a kid was, ‘What about people who don’t have boots?'” Emerson said. “The idea that no matter where you start, you’ll be able to ‘make it’ — that was tough for me, because I always view America as everybody’s at a staggered starting point.

“If everyone was born in the same household, with the same values, same disciplines, same school systems, that would be totally different,” he added. “But the child of two Harvard graduates that have a six-figure income and the child of a single mother who has issues that she’s dealing with don’t scream ‘same starting point.'”

In that sense, Emerson said, King’s American dream is “almost like idealism versus realism. Idealistically, of course, everybody would have the same opportunity.”

“We all dream differently,” he said. “My hope is we can acknowledge the fact that not everything is attainable for everybody, unfortunately.”

Another passage in King’s speech, about the son of slaves one day prospering, led Emerson to think about recent runoff races in Georgia.

“(The Rev. Raphael Warnock’s mother) wasn’t a slave, but she did have a low-wage job picking cotton to provide for her family,” Emerson said. “It’s amazing to think about how in the state of Georgia, which was referenced by Dr. King, a man who is the son of a woman who picked cotton in that state is now a (U.S.) senator. It really made me smile in terms of how, wow, we still have a lot to work on, but part of Dr. King’s words are coming to life. It was really one that hit home because it’s so recent, so current.”

From his seat in the U.S. Senate, Warnock will have a chance to effect real change and have a voice, Emerson said.

“It’s a little bit of hope.”

— Kathryn Skelton, Sun Journal

Charles Nero

Bates College professor

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Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

I have a dream 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!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

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

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,    From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

————

Bates College Professor Charles Nero grew up in the segregated South, experiencing Jim Crow firsthand.

One of his more vivid memories, he said, is of visiting his pediatrician, whose office was required to have two waiting rooms: one marked “White” and one marked “Colored.”

His doctor was one of the few in New Orleans who saw both Black and white patients, he said.

Nero reflected on the portion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in which the civil rights leader says he dreamed that his four 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.”

King went on to say he dreamed of a day when “little black boys and back girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Nero said his two sons live now in a time and place where that seems possible.

“I notice that my children have an ability to have friends across racial lines in ways that I did not,” he said. “And I see a sensitivity among their teachers that all of their children be treated fairly, with kindness and with love,” he said. “I see my children’s willingness to embrace children of different races and ethnic backgrounds. I see those children of different races and other ethnic backgrounds would like to embrace my children. And so, in that sense, I definitely see that as part of King’s prophecy.”

But Nero said this country has not summited the mountaintop of King’s dream.

“I’m also well aware that we live in a country, especially after the past week, we live in a country in which there are people who challenge that and who do not want that to be the norm.”

Nero, who teaches rhetoric, film, screen studies and Africana (formerly African American Studies) at the private college in Lewiston, said King’s use of lyrics from the song “America” (My County ‘Tis of Thee) was deliberate and carries historical significance.

Penned by the Baptist Minister Samuel Francis Smith and first performed on July 4, 1831, it was embraced by abolitionists as a freedom song and it became a statement about citizenship and who belonged in America, Nero said.

“Part of it was the question and the issue of the enslaved,” he said.

Renowned journalist Ida B. Wells, who led an anti-lynching crusade that started in 1893 in Boston, used the song in an effort to denounce what she saw was going on in her country with the disenfranchisement of African Americans, Nero said.

King’s speech references the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment, that defined citizenship and granted it to African Americans, which the practices of segregation denied, Nero said.

“So, when (King) refers to, ‘my country tis of thee,’ he’s calling on that tradition, America’s hymn, that African Americans must be included in America for their freedom and democracy and justice to have meaning,” Nero said.

“He’s saying the utopian vision is possible, but it’s only possible if we can all sing, “my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.”

— Christopher Williams, Sun Journal

Leslie Hill

Former associate professor of politics at Bates College

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And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, 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! 

————

Leslie Hill was 13 when her aunt rounded up Hill and all the kids in her family and took them to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech during Detroit’s “Walk to Freedom” in 1963.

Two months later, King would deliver his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech at the nation’s capital, with its climax calling for equality, repeating the refrain “let freedom ring.”

Hill, now 70, retired last year as an associate professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston.

Asked to reflect on the speech, Hill first pointed out King’s mention of northern and western states, which were not at the time thought of in the same context as southern states, which held laws mandating racial segregation.

“In doing this, I think he’s gesturing to the fact that critical institutions like housing, education and the workforce were structured by notions of white supremacy, and operated in the North and West as de facto segregated institutions,” she said.

It’s only after that that he points to Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, states that were conventionally thought of in terms of racial segregation.

Hill said it’s important to think about “what he’s calling attention to” in those final lines of the speech, and the context in which they were delivered.

By 1963, King had already led marches in northern cities, including on June 23, in Detroit, and, according to Hill, had called attention to racial segregation both “by practice” in the North, and by law in the South.

The context of “freedom,” Hill also said, has largely shifted since then. The civil rights movement in the 1960s, she said, was calling for the freedom to access employment, accommodations, education and voting.

“I would argue that King’s notion of freedom was very different from today’s individualistic references that demand allowances for individual choice,” she said.

The climax of the speech, where King references “all of God’s children” joining hands, made her think of the years that followed.

She said that in his 1967 speech “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War,” King examines barriers to “the dream” he spoke about four years earlier. Hill said it offers illumination for what we are seeing in politics today.

In the 1967 speech, King said racism, economic exploitation and militarization were the barriers at the root of inequality.

“It seems to me that, to some degree or another, all those things were present during the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Hill said.

And while Hill said King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has become the go-to for celebrating him, she believes the speech has been offered up by public figures, educators and other institutions “in service to a majority of Americans — white Americans, those who resist examination of this country’s legacy and current posture of elevating whiteness and the white experience — at the expense of the lives, livelihood and life-sustaining creativity of people of color.”

Hill is serving this year as faculty fellow at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College. She’s set to moderate a virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion organized by the college Monday.

For Hill, seeing King speak as barely a teenager has resonated. She spoke during her aunt’s funeral about what that day meant to her.

“It was such a moving memory for me,” she said. “It was just really important.”

— Andrew Rice, Sun Journal

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