51 years ago, on the 3-year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Dr. King took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - 6 years before he would deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech there. Distressed by the lack of real progress, and feeling betrayed by both major political parties' failure to pass and enforce meaningful legislation based on that landmark ruling, he joined leaders of the NAACP and about 20,000 supporters to urge elected officials to act. Their request was simple. Speaking last, this is what he said:
[O]ur most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.And then he turned to the frustrated crowd to exhort them as well, to promise them that these things they dreamed of would become reality so long as they continue to seek change in the name of love and not hatred, in the spirit of humility and not retribution, with faith in themselves and in the better nature of those who oppressed them.
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.
Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a "Southern Manifesto" because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.
Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court's decision of May seventeenth, 1954.
Go out with that faith today. Go back to your homes in the Southland to that faith, with that faith today. Go back to Philadelphia, to New York, to Detroit and Chicago with that faith today: that the universe is on our side in the struggle. Stand up for justice. Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. And even after you've crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil and gigantic mountains of opposition. But I say to you this afternoon: Keep moving. Let nothing slow you up. Move on with dignity and honor and respectability.50 years later, occasional Republican shenanigans notwithstanding, the ballot belongs to us all. And after all are counted tomorrow, chances are good that an African-American who was not yet born when that address was given will receive more votes than anyone ever has in this country. 20,000 had the nerve - the will, the fortitude, faith and courage - to demand the ballot. By 1963, they would become 200,000 and then more. A milestone that must have seemed a distant dream then is now on the verge of reality, just a half-century later. There lived a great people, indeed.
I realize that it will cause restless nights sometime. It might cause losing a job; it will cause suffering and sacrifice. It might even cause physical death for some. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing can be more Christian. Keep going today. Keep moving amid every obstacle. Keep moving amid every mountain of opposition. If you will do that with dignity, when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, "There lived a great people. A people with 'fleecy locks and black complexion,' but a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization; a people which stood up with dignity and honor and saved Western civilization in her darkest hour; a people that gave new integrity and a new dimension of love to our civilization." When that happens, "the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy."