It’s almost impossible to imagine an America before the “I have a dream” speech rang out from the Lincoln Memorial, 50 years ago this week.

Like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have become part of our societal DNA, a fully expressed vision of the kind of country that we someday want to become.

When we encounter these words as most of us have — on grainy black-and-white video — they sound as if they were already carved in stone the day that they were delivered.

But this anniversary is a time to remember that these words came from a real person at a real event in the middle of a struggle whose outcome was far from certain.

In August 1963, it was still legal to segregate by race in public accommodations, not only water fountains and lunch counters but also state universities and employment offices. It was legal to create barriers to voting that affected only people of one race. In much of the country, a white man could murder a black man without fear of being convicted by a jury of his peers.

Some advocates of these policies lived in governor’s mansions. Some were judges. Others were members of Congress.

That’s why 250,000 people gathered in Washington 50 years ago this week in the March for Jobs, Justice and Freedom and heard King’s speech. Many went back home determined to change the world.

They did change it, and some of them are still with us. Tuesday night, the eve of the anniversary, four people who attended the march will be at the Portland Public Library for a panel discussion about their memories of that day, not in grainy black-and-white but full living color.

They were witnesses to the historic moment and actors in the history that came after. Some of it was inspiring; some, like King’s death by assassination, tragic.

While the progress has been breathtaking, the work is far from done. People are still denied opportunity and justice as a result of their race. There are still people who would like to roll back the gains that were made.

It is important to remember that King’s words did not start out etched in stone. They were one person’s vision that millions of others have accepted as their own. Even though that vision is still only partly realized, this anniversary shows how far words can take us.


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