Most Americans know about the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, when 250,000 people marched for “Jobs and Freedom.” The march ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the speech that would define his legacy, with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson standing behind him saying, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” – and he did.
Less well known is that King had been working on that speech for months, trying out different versions across the country, including at an extremely unlikely place: a small boys’ boarding school in central Massachusetts, where Roger Daly and I were students.
Groton School opened its gates to the sons of elite families in 1884. Its founder, Endicott Peabody, was a Boston Brahmin with something of a twist: as a 24-year-old seminary student he had moved to Tombstone, Arizona, arriving three months after the “Gunfight at the O.K Corral.” There he gained street cred by never losing a boxing match, and he built a church whose altar rail was donated by his new friend, Wyatt Earp.
Groton instilled the importance of public service, and later civil rights, in its students (the first African-American student entered in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education), and in early 1963 the school’s headmaster, Jack Crocker, invited Martin Luther King to speak. King spoke to the school and surrounding community on Saturday, February 4th, and he preached the next morning in the school’s chapel.
What we didn’t know – couldn’t have known – then was that this was one of the earliest speeches in which King tried out the wording and phrases that would end up in his address that summer beneath the Lincoln Memorial. I had never heard anything like it, the lyrical, repetitive cadences of this Baptist minister were a kind of poetry, and the history his words recounted and the vision they foretold changed forever my understanding of America.
In the wash of history, we often think of the March on Washington as the culmination of something, a moment when America came together around King’s dream and sang “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez. But less than three weeks later, four young girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church; three young civil rights volunteers were murdered the next summer; and within five years, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated.
The civil rights movement was our finest moment as a nation, and those, like Roger Daly, who practiced King’s philosophy of non-violent resistance were among our bravest people. But it was also a bloody time, a murderous time, which laid bare an ugly underside of violence and hatred. A history that remembers one and conceals the other does us no service.
King’s speech invoked Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, whose final words seem as apt today as they were in 1863 and in 1963:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”