The most famous parts of the speech, the lines that gave it its name, were actually taken from speeches King had given before, and did not plan to do so at the march to the National Mall. But responding to a cry from the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in the audience, calling "Tell them about the dream, Martin," he began to improvise.
Thus, the most recognized and beloved call for freedom and equality in the United States.
Scroll down for a video and transcript of the speech
From the Archives: More than 200,000 rally for civil rights
WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 1963 (UPI) -- An intensely emotional but orderly throng of more than 200,000 demonstrators-their leaders shouting "the time is now"-Wednesday staged America's biggest civil rights rally beneath the brooding figure of Abraham Lincoln.
The demonstrators, converging on the capital from across the country-from tiny hamlets and big cities-opened the mammoth "jobs and freedom" rally with a festive picnic like air and concluded it in an impassioned mood of almost religious fervor.
Massed on the Lincoln memorial grounds after marching from the Washington monument, they heard their leaders lay down 10 civil rights demands ranging from equal access to jobs to total school desegregation now.
And the theme was "Now." Speaker after speaker declared that the Negro had waited too long for civil rights-and then came the Rev. Martin Luther King, jr., perhaps the most eloquent of the white and Negro civil rights leaders.
"The time is now," he shouted, ticking off Negro demands. Again and again he declared: "The time is now."
The huge crowd that stretched for nearly a mile along Washington's historic mall shortly before had been put in a revival mood by singer Mahalia Jackson with two hand clapping songs: "I've Been Duped and I've Been Scorned" and "I'm Going to My Lord When I Get Home."
Leaders of the march, who conferred late in the day with President Kennedy, were jubilant over the huge turnout and over what Washington police Chief Robert V. Murray called the "very orderly" assemblage.
"Great, simply great," exclaimed Dr. King.
Said Theodore M. Wells, leader of an integrated group from Belleville, N.J.: "It was beautiful. I didn't see a cross look on anyone's face. I didn't hear a profane word."
There was agreement from several members of congress, who when they appeared before the throng were greeted with shouts of "pass the (civil rights) bill, pass the bill." Senator Keating (Rep., N.Y.) called the march "an amazing demonstration."
The marchers streamed into the capital in the early morning hours on trains, more than 1,500 buses, nine chartered planes, and by car and by foot.
They came from hundreds of cities and hamlets in masses that represented nearly every condition of humanity from elderly white clergymen to young descendants of slaves-convinced, they said, that this was the high point of the long rights battle.
Even before the close of the ceremonies they started heeding the advice of their leaders and, weary from the strains of the day, headed toward Washington's Union station and its bus terminals for the trip home.
As the rally broke up, police reported that 1,355 had required treatment at first aid stations, none with serious injuries. Many fell over tent poles and down steps. Uncounted were the hundreds who fainted in the closely packed crowd and were revived on the spot.
Three arrests were reported, none involving demonstrators.
These isolated incidents were completely overshadowed by the sheer size and enthusiasm of the march from the Washington monument to the Lincoln memorial, and the emotional demonstration before the Lincoln shrine.
After raising his estimates throughout the day as more and more marchers appeared, Chief Murray finally settled on a figure of "over 200,000." The mass of humanity appeared countless.
Even so, veteran observers of civil rights demonstrations agreed that the Washington march had to go down as perhaps the best organized and disciplined demonstration in the history of the movement.
So disciplined was the crowd that when one of the number fell victim to fainting he or she was simply lifted above the heads of the throng and passed hand by hand over people's heads back to first aid station. All this without interrupting a single speech.
The emotional peak of the day came with Dr. King's speech at the close of the demonstration introduced as "the moral leader of our nation today," he took note that just "five score years ago" Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Dr. King called the Lincoln document "a beacon light of hope" and then looked back to the constitution and declaration of independence with their promises of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all Americans.
Terming those pledges a "promissory note," he said the demonstrators had descended on Washington to "cash" the check.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned," he declared to the shouts of the multitude before him. "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 he declared that the Negro refuses "to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt" and is determined to "cash a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
This also was the theme of a key slogan: "We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis."
The symbolic "march for jobs and freedom" actually covered only eight-tenths of a mile between the Washington monument gathering grounds and the Lincoln memorial-where some of the crowd sat along the famed reflecting pool and dangled their feet in the water.
Along the way some chanted freedom songs but most strode in silence.
"Like a church picnic," said Deputy Police Chief Howard Covell as some of his men found so little to do they opened box lunches and began munching on sandwiches while demonstrators walked by. There was equal order once the crowd massed at the memorial.
During the early morning hours nearly all traffic within Washington moved toward the center of the city where the Washington monument spears the sky. Here they gathered...first in a festive mood, then in more solemn manner.
At 11:15 a.m., after entertainment by such personalities as actor Marlon Brando and singer Harry Belafonte, the march toward Abraham Lincoln's shrine got under way spontaneously when a group surrounding a drum and bugle corps suddenly headed for the memorial grounds.
"They're individualists," explained Negro leader Roy Wilkins. "They were ready to march and they marched."
Down tree lined Constitution and Independence avenues the marchers tramped, occasionally breaking into the rhythmic chant of "freedom, freedom, freedom" and sometimes singing freedom songs. One favorite was the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The line of march down Constitution av. Carried them past the gleaming white Pan American building, the National Academy of Sciences on one side and dingy "temporary" World War II navy buildings on the other.
Finally, nearly three hours later, they had massed on the memorial grounds.
The formal ceremonies got under way with the national anthem. Then came speaker after speaker laying before the assemblage the Negro's demand for "freedom and jobs."
Dr. King said they had a "very fruitful" session with Senate Democratic Leader Mansfield of Montana.
One of the nation's top religious leaders, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, executive head of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., appealed to Americans to abide by the spirit of God.
"We have achieved neither a nonsegregated church nor a nonsegregated society," he said. "And this is partly because the churches of America have failed to put their own houses in order.
"We come in the fear of God that moved Thomas Jefferson to say, 'Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.'"
Full text of the speech:
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 100 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.
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 that 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 security of justice. We have also come to his 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. 1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hoped 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. 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.
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.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. 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 selfhood 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.
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. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by 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 -- 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.
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. 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.
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 father's 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. 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!"