And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. 

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. 

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. 

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. 

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. 

But not only that: 

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. 

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. 

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. 

From every mountainside, let freedom ring. 

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 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!

Leslie Hill retired in 2020 as associate professor of politics at Bates College. Hill saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Detroit in 1963.

Leslie Hill was 13 when her aunt rounded up Hill and all the kids in her family and took them to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech during Detroit’s “Walk to Freedom” in 1963.

Two months later, King would deliver his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech at the nation’s capital, with its climax calling for equality, repeating the refrain “let freedom ring.”

Hill, now 70, retired last year as an associate professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston.

Asked to reflect on the speech, Hill first pointed out King’s mention of northern and western states, which were not at the time thought of in the same context as southern states, which held laws mandating racial segregation.

“In doing this, I think he’s gesturing to the fact that critical institutions like housing, education and the workforce were structured by notions of white supremacy, and operated in the North and West as de facto segregated institutions,” she said.

It’s only after that that he points to Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, states that were conventionally thought of in terms of racial segregation.

Hill said it’s important to think about “what he’s calling attention to” in those final lines of the speech, and the context in which they were delivered.

By 1963, King had already led marches in northern cities, including on June 23, in Detroit, and, according to Hill, had called attention to racial segregation both “by practice” in the North, and by law in the South.

The context of “freedom,” Hill also said, has largely shifted since then. The civil rights movement in the 1960s, she said, was calling for the freedom to access employment, accommodations, education and voting.

“I would argue that King’s notion of freedom was very different from today’s individualistic references that demand allowances for individual choice,” she said.

The climax of the speech, where King references “all of God’s children” joining hands, made her think of the years that followed.

She said that in his 1967 speech “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War,” King examines barriers to “the dream” he spoke about four years earlier. Hill said it offers illumination for what we are seeing in politics today.

In the 1967 speech, King said racism, economic exploitation and militarization were the barriers at the root of inequality.

“It seems to me that, to some degree or another, all those things were present during the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Hill said.

And while Hill said King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has become the go-to for celebrating him, she believes the speech has been offered up by public figures, educators and other institutions “in service to a majority of Americans — white Americans, those who resist examination of this country’s legacy and current posture of elevating whiteness and the white experience — at the expense of the lives, livelihood and life-sustaining creativity of people of color.”

Hill is serving this year as faculty fellow at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College. She’s set to moderate a virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion organized by the college Monday.

For Hill, seeing King speak as barely a teenager has resonated. She spoke during her aunt’s funeral about what that day meant to her.

“It was such a moving memory for me,” she said. “It was just really important.”

— Andrew Rice, Sun Journal

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