In 1963, African Americans were justifiably tired of waiting for the promises guaranteed to them as American citizens, and many looked to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance. In 1961, they had participated in the Freedom Rides; although these efforts led to changes in bus segregation, many African Americans suffered vicious beatings in order to obtain those changes. In 1963, King was a vocal leader in the Birmingham Campaign, calling this city in Alabama "the most segregated in the country." King was imprisoned in Birmingham, where he penned his convincing "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which pressed religious leaders to reconsider their stance on race relations and necessary actions that needed to follow.
This climate led to the March on Washington, which is where King delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech" to around 250,000 people. He wove the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Constitution, and the Bible into his passionate delivery. The speech contains various examples of well-constructed figurative language that commands auditory attention and presents a compelling portrait of the injustices inflicted on a population of American citizens. In the speech, King looks to the past to highlight the contrast between the promises guaranteed to them and the reality of the world African Americans still live in:
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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
King goes on to explain that the group has gathered to cash a metaphorical check guaranteed to them by the Declaration of Independence, and he refuses to believe that there are "insufficient funds" to deliver on these promises.
King ends the speech with a plea for the audience to return to their homes all over the country, even in the deeply segregated South, and take this dream of equality with them, pushing peacefully for change.
The speech was immediately hailed as a great success, and it was at least partially responsible for the beginnings of a shift in American thought and policy; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came after that.