On Aug. 28, a hot, humid day 50 years ago, some 250,000 people who had assembled on the grounds between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument fell silent for the climax of the largest demonstration Washington, D.C., had ever seen. Then, in an address that many scholars rate as the most important political speech of the century, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out his dream, a vision of equality for the entire nation.
King's speech "really shifted public opinion about the civil rights movement" and engaged white America in the struggle, says William P. Jones, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Delivered in the cadence of a charismatic preacher, King's simple message — equality for all strengthens a nation — instilled in many a deep sense of hope and a feeling of responsibility to do their part to fulfill King's dream.
"Are we moving closer to King's dream or further away? It's a mixed answer," says Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, editor of King's papers and author of the memoir Martin's Dream. "For many Americans the dream has remained elusive."
Perhaps those who were there can best explain the full impact of the speech that forever changed the country.
Meet six of them and watch their stories.
Next page: Edith Lee-Payne. »