Study Guide

"I Have a Dream" speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.

"I Have a Dream" speech Summary

Origins and History (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Along with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered one hundred years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most memorable in U.S. history. It was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, where nearly a quarter of a million people gathered for a March for Jobs and Freedom to urge Congress and President John F. Kennedy to pass a national civil rights bill.

"I Have a Dream" speech At Issue (Representations of Race in American Literature)

The spring and summer of 1963 proved to be one of the most important times of the Civil Rights movement. On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated; white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith would not be found guilty of his murder for nearly thirty years. In April, 1963, protest against discrimination in the downtown department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, culminated in protests on April 4. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest during these demonstrations and the media coverage of police violence against the demonstrators catapulted both the movement and King, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), into the national spotlight to an even greater degree than before. The boycotts and mass marches eventually provided sufficient pressure that white leaders promised to desegregate the stores’ facilities, hire African Americans to work in the stores, and establish a biracial committee for ongoing talks concerning racial problems.

These gains were achieved at a price, however: King was jailed briefly; police brutality occurred against protesters; and arrested protesters filled Birmingham’s jails. Nevertheless, the filled jails negatively affected the capacity of police to arrest and hold demonstrators, which was exactly what King and other civil rights leaders had hoped; news coverage of police brutality outraged many citizens; and, while jailed, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a document that delineated the need for and goals of the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. The acclaim that met this document foreshadowed the reaction to his speech at the March on Washington two months later.

"I Have a Dream" speech March on Washington (Representations of Race in American Literature)

The purpose of the March on Washington (sometimes called the Poor People’s March) was not merely to make an emotional plea on behalf of African Americans; its primary purpose was to expose the American public to the economic basis of racial inequality. Thus, the focus of the march was the need to increase jobs and economic opportunities for African Americans, in order for them to realize racial equality. These especially were the goals of the leaders of the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, labor leader and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, one of the earliest planners of the event. In fact, the full title of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The march, therefore, had a set of important goals: more jobs, a higher minimum wage, support for President John F. Kennedy’s antidiscrimination legislation, and arousing the conscience of the United States to the plight of African Americans. King’s speech was especially important on this last point, for the “I Have a Dream” section of the speech was an eloquent plea for a society based on racial harmony. Nevertheless, while King’s speech is best remembered for his vision of racial equality, its true import lies in the fact that the renown accorded the speech helped advance the multifaceted goals of the march, thus helping to pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"I Have a Dream" speech King’s Vision (Representations of Race in American Literature)

The passage in which King reiterates “I have a dream” should be understood in the overall context of the talk. Although King started by reading from his prepared text, he disregarded this text about halfway through the speech and incorporated a theme he had used in some previous speeches: “I have a dream.” This theme introduced into the speech two of the main tenets of the SCLC: interracial cooperation and social equality. King’s eloquent vision of a future without racial divisions captured the emotions of many viewers and, later, readers of the speech. In fact, the emotional power of that section of King’s remarks sometimes blurs the memory of other, equally important aspects of his speech.

King’s speech has become widely known as a masterpiece of rhetoric and argumentation. One rhetorical device that King used to great effect is repetition. The most obvious example is the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” to detail different aspects of King’s vision of racial harmony, but there are other, equally important examples. In the opening section of the speech, King reiterated the phrase “one hundred years later” to emphasize that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation (issued in 1863), African Americans still had not achieved equality. Immediately after the “I have a dream” section, King repeated the phrase that it is “with this faith” in his dream that he and other people could hope to transform American society. These examples demonstrate King’s consciousness of the use of rhetoric to produce emotional impact.

Perhaps one of the most important...

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"I Have a Dream" speech The Speech (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

King’s remarks were the keynote address of the rally and capped off a day of speeches and musical presentations. The large crowd was charged with emotion and enthusiasm as King took the podium. The three major television networks were to provide live television coverage of the speech, so King had carefully prepared a formal text. In an interview a few months after giving the speech, he recalled he was so moved by the emotion of the crowd spread out before him on that August afternoon in the nation’s capital that he abandoned the prepared text and began to preach from the heart, using the phrase, “I have a dream.” He had previously used this phrase in speeches given at mass meetings in Birmingham, Alabama, in April and in Detroit in June, 1963. In one of the speech’s most memorable passages, King said, “I have a dream 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.” He drew inspiration from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, mixing his “I have a dream” phrase with phrases from the Bible. After speaking a few sentences from his prepared conclusion, he picked up on a new theme, reciting the first stanza of “My Country, Tis of Thee” and ending with the line “from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” King spoke forcefully to make himself heard over the growing roar of the crowd. His conclusion powerfully summarized his dream for the United States and his hope for the future. He looked forward to a day “when all God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last.’”

"I Have a Dream" speech Impact (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Although he did not know it at the time, King had delivered the greatest speech of his life. His words conveyed, to a television audience of millions, the moral power of the great crusade for civil rights in the 1960’s. No longer could the country ignore the injustices of poverty, segregation, and violence against African Americans in the United States. King’s eloquent plea for justice and freedom was one of the decade’s shining moments; however, it also served as a powerful reminder that much still needed to be done.

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