Know Your History
Did You Know that the most iconic part of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was improvised?
With February winding down, we find ourselves with too many stories of heroic African-Americans like pioneer aviatrix Bessie Coleman and artic explorer Matthew Henson that deserve to be told and not enough time to tell them. However, in celebration of Black History Month and in tribute to all of our fellow Californians of color, we offer up the following.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington
On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, 250,000 Americans united at the Lincoln Memorial, sweltering in the late summer heat and humidity but eagerly awaiting the final speech of the March on Washington.
The night before the march, Dr. King began working on his speech with a small group of advisers in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. The original speech was more political and less historic, according to Clarence B. Jones, and it included no references to dreams. However, the following day after delivering the now famous line, “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Dr. King paused briefly. Onstage, singer Mahalia Jackson, who had earlier sung two spirituals, reportedly lifted up her voice once more, saying “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” (No one definitively knows if he heard her, and it’s worth noting that Prathia Hall, a Civil Rights activist, theologian, and ethicist, is also said to have provided inspiration through her own Sunday services, several of which Dr. King attended.)
Regardless of the source of inspiration, Dr. King pushed his notes aside before continuing. “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….” And in that 10 second span, the Baptist preacher transformed his speech into a sermon and the entire nation into his church. It is now universally recognized as one of the greatest oratorical moments in history.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
From the early 16th century to the end of the American Civil War, the Transatlantic Slave Trade shipped more than 12.5 million African slaves to the New World—primarily North America, South America, and the Caribbean. By the time the then-British colonies became involved in the slave trade in 1619, it had been underway for almost 100 years. The majority of slaves in North America arrived between 1700 and 1866, but the final number, 388,000, represents a much smaller percentage than most Americans realize.
Of the original 12.5 million, only 10.7 million Africans survived the dreaded Middle Passage, with the majority (4.9 million) landing in Brazil. There, subjected to terrible working conditions, brutal punishment, unbearable heat, and rampant disease—as they were almost everywhere—they suffered incredibly high mortality rates. It would take until 1888 for Brazil to ban slavery, the last country to do so.