GWEN IFILL: Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 82 this year. And, in Washington, a memorial honoring him is rising near the National Mall.
The site is blocks away from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his most famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Its words were being recited in observances — in observances coast to coast today.
Last week, fourth-graders from Washington, D.C.’s Watkins Elementary School took to the Lincoln steps themselves.
STUDENT: 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.
STUDENT: Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
STUDENT: This momentous decree came as a great beacon of light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.
STUDENT: It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
STUDENT: But, 100 years later, the Negro is still not free.
STUDENT: One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
STUDENT: One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
STUDENT: One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of the American society, and finds himself an exile in his own land.
STUDENT: So, we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
STUDENT: 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.
STUDENT: This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men, as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
STUDENT: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
STUDENT: Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
STUDENT: But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
STUDENT: We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
STUDENT: So we have come to cash this check…
STUDENT: … a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
STUDENT: We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.
STUDENT: This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
STUDENT: 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.
STUDENT: Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.
STUDENT: This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.
STUDENT: 1963 is not an end, but a beginning.
STUDENT: I say to you today, my friends…
STUDENT: And, 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.
STUDENT: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.
STUDENTS: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
STUDENT: 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.
STUDENT: I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice…
STUDENT: … sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
STUDENT: I have a dream that one day, 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.
STUDENT: I have a dream today.
STUDENT: 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…
STUDENT: 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.
STUDENT: And when this happens, when we let freedom ring, we let it ring from every village, from every hamlet, from every state, from every city…
STUDENTS: … 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!”
GWEN IFILL: Those were fourth-graders from Washington, D.C.’s Watkins Elementary School.
Organizers of the $120 million King Memorial have $11 million left to raise to meet their construction goal.