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The "great American" that Martin Luther King refers to at the beginning of his speech is Abraham Lincoln. There are two ways that you can see this. First, King makes an oblique reference to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He says that it was "Five score years ago" that the "great American" lived. This is a reference to Lincoln's phrase "four score and seven years ago" in the Gettysburg Address. Second, King then says that what happened 100 years previous was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This was signed during the Civil War by President Lincoln, thus committing the Union to the idea of freeing the slaves.
In the famous speech given on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the great American. He is talking about Abraham Lincoln. He refers in his speech to the fact that Lincoln was the one who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. Abraham Lincoln was against slavery and by signing the proclamation, he took a stand to help stop the horrible tragedy that was slavery. Dr. King looked to Lincoln as the forerunner of the great fight they were now facing. Dr. King was the most peaceful of protesters and encouraged others to be also. He used what Lincoln had done, as the example they all needed to follow. The speech was given at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and has become one of the most famous speeches of all time.
"5 score years ago, a great American, 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."
Dr. King went on to say that the fight was still not over, it was just beginning for them. Yes, slavery had been done away with, but the injustice blacks were facing then was just as horrible. Dr. King knew they had a long fight ahead of them.
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