Free at last?

The scene was exactly fifty years ago in Washington DC, in the shadow of the memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States who freed the slaves. On 28 August 1963 Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech. In the middle of a bitter struggle for African-American political and civil rights, King articulated, with his customary poetic rolling cadences, a vision of freedom and equality for all Americans.

His speech ended with these words:

“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all 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.”

King’s speech, delivered to about 300,000 of all races gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was comparatively short. Another civil rights activist present on that occasion, Clarence Jones, recalled how King put aside his prepared speech (partly drafted by Jones) and spoke off the cuff. The result was electric: “A shudder went through me” recalled Jones, a recognition that something remarkable had happened. It summed up for many Americans the vision of the Civil Rights Movement: equal rights for all citizens, equal access without discrimination to jobs, education and welfare, and the God-given right for all to be treated with dignity.

A shudder went through Jones. It went through the whole United States. Indeed, it reverberated – and continues to echo – through history. It is not widely known that, here in a South Africa that was still without television, copies and recordings of King’s speeches, especially ‘I Have a Dream’, were circulated in activist circles. Records were smuggled into the country and listened to by students and community leaders. King’s vision of justice and equality was something with which South African progressives of every race and political stripe (liberals and Marxists, religious and secular) could identify.

And although he never met Martin Luther King, when Nelson Mandela spoke at his presidential inauguration in May 1994, he looked straight at King’s widow Coretta Scott King who was present and said: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, We are free at last.”

Fifty years ago, in another country, on another continent, Martin Luther King expressed his dream for a society free of racism and injustice. Coretta Scott King later commented: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” Many of us felt the same in 1994, but as she said it only lasted a moment.

But why should it last only a moment? As people created in God’s image, we should demand of our leaders the dignity of the children of God. Why should we as citizens – whether Americans or South Africans, Syrians or Zimbabweans, Egyptians or North Koreans, or anyone else for that matter – settle for less?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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