Rev. Martin Luther King joins hundreds of thousands during March on Washington, 1963. (American Jewish Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons)
As the anniversary of the March on Washington approached, Senator Bernie Sanders returned to the Lincoln Memorial where hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered on August 28, 1963. “I remember that very well, not by simply seeing it on TV or reading about it,” explained Sanders. “I was one of the several hundred thousand people who was here. I came in on a bus from the University of Chicago, where I was then going to school.”
The independent senator from Vermont heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. address the crowd that day. And he heard the message that the organizers of the March intended.
“What King was talking about was not only racial justice,” recalled Sanders. “He was talking about economic justice.”
Those economic themes were central to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which the civil rights leader declared:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, 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 captivity.
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
In a sense we have 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 would be guaranteed the inalienable 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, which 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. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.