January 20, 2020
‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I decided to do an extra Famous Sayings post this week at look at a part of the Reverend’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” The speech, giving on August 28, 1963, was part of the March on Washington to Jobs and Freedom. At the end of the speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words:
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, 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 Catholic, 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!’
What Did Martin Luther King, Jr. When He Said, ‘Free at Last’?
Of course, the meaning of the words “Free at last” can be found in the beginning of the “I Have a Dream” speech:
Five score years ago, a great America, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, 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 their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is 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 languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Yet King mentioned that people from all backgrounds would sing, “We are free at last!” meaning that racism and discrimination imprison everyone. When one is prejudiced against others (due to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or other facts used by identitarians) they lock themselves into a regressive way of thinking, they build up years of anger for no reason, and they end of turning away people who could be their allies. Some people even willingly hold back progress and sacrifice their own wellbeing just to keep others they dislike down.
King had also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and it is true because fighting against injustice is not just the responsibility of those directly and immediately affected by it. Eventually, those who may have thought that they weren’t in the direct line of fire may find themselves in a similar position. Thus, working together, no matter our position in life, is the best for the United States and the world at large.
Which Negro Spiritual Was King Referring to in His Speech?
That is unclear, as there are many spirituals/gospel songs titled “Free at Last.”
One source I consulted was Calvin Earl’s website, but the link only led to an image gallery. I had to find the original page via the Wayback Machine, but there was a recording that I could not access. In the text, Earl said that the words “Hell’s dark door,” a reference to the South, were in the lyrics. However, I found no such lyrics online.
I didn’t even hear those lyrics when listening to a few versions of the song on YouTube:
Yet, as Earl said in the archived text, the spiritual “Free at Last” may have originated around the Civil War, as newly emancipated slaves fight for the Union and sang around the white Union soldiers.
Links/More Reading & Listening
Earl, Calving. “FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, THANK GOD ALMIGHTY WE ARE FREE AT LAST. THAT IS AN OLD SPIRITUAL, HOW MANY OF YOU ACTUALLY KNOW THE SONG OR THE WORDS TO THAT SONG? LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK?” Calvin Earl, 28 April 2015? http://web.archive.org/web/20150710195013/https://www.calvinearl.com/free-at-last-free-at-last-thank-god-almighty-we-are-free-at-last-that-is-an-old-spiritual-how-many-of-you-actually-know-the-song-or-the-words-to-that-song-let-me-know-what-you-think/. Accessed 19 January 2020.
“Finding the Meaning of Free at Last.” BU Today. Boston University. http://www.bu.edu/articles/2013/icons-among-us-free-at-last. Accessed 19 January 2020.
“FREE AT LAST.” NegroSprituals.com, https://www.negrospirituals.com/songs/free_at_last_from.htm. Accessed 20 January 2020.
“Martin Luther King | I Have a Dream Speech.” America Rhetoric, Updated 14 February 2019, https://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm. Accessed 20 January 2020.
Powell, Azizi. “‘Free At Last’ African American Spiritual & Gospel Song.” Pancocojams, 25 May 2014, https://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/05/free-at-last-spiritual-gospel-song.html. Accessed 20 January 2020.
Various Authors. “I Have a Dream.” Wikipedia, Updated 21 January 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_a_Dream. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
Various Authors. “Spiritual (music).” Wikipedia, Updated 29 December 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_(music). Accessed 20 January 2020.