It was 50 years ago this August that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. closed his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with his rendering of a dream he had for the country’s future. The soaring final sentences were somewhat extemporaneous ”” he let his emotions and sense of the occasion carry him past parts of the prepared text and on to the right words, concluding with the rousing “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.” It was an exultant moment for much of this country, and in the national memory it has acquired the gauzy image of a happy ending to our long struggle with racial inequality and bigotry. Less vibrant in memory is an image from less than three weeks later: four girls dressed all in white because they were to lead youth day services at their Birmingham, Ala., church, their lives suddenly ended by a racial terrorist bombing.
“During the short career of Martin Luther King Jr., between 1954 and 1968, the nonviolent civil rights movement lifted the patriotic spirit of the United States toward our defining national purpose,” writes Taylor Branch, a chronicler of those years. But it was a hard lifting.