What was the context that inspired the "I Have a Dream" speech?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The immediate context of the speech was the civil rights March on Washington in 1963. The event would be televised, streamed into the homes of millions of Americans, many of whom would have had only limited awareness of the civil rights struggle.

That being the case, Martin Luther King Jr. took his opportunity to make a speech that consciously invoked those landmarks of American freedom such as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. In doing so, he sought to convince millions of Americans that the attainment of civil rights represented not a threat to the tradition of American freedom, but rather its fulfillment.

It was this strenuous effort on King's behalf to place the civil rights movement in its historical context that earned him the opprobrium of more radical African American leaders such as Malcolm X. They argued that it was the whole tradition of American liberty that was the problem, not whether or not the civil rights movement fitted into it.

However, King's speech was hugely successful. As well as being instantly hailed as a great piece of oratory, it had the intended effect of educating more Americans on the reality of the civil rights struggle, and it helped lead, in due course, to the passing of landmark civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The “I Have a Dream” speech was the most famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was in need of a significant speech. He needed a speech that would give momentum to the civil rights movement. While Dr. King had national recognition, he needed to give a powerful speech to a national audience. While he was well known in the southern churches for his speaking, most people throughout the United States hadn’t heard him give a full speech. This speech, to be given at the March on Washington in late August 1963, would be covered by the major national television stations. There was a lot of debate within Dr. King’s inner circle about what to say and what not to say. Some people didn’t want him to use the “I Have a Dream” concept. They felt it had been overused and wouldn’t be effective. Dr. King wanted the speech to be received in a similar manner as the Gettysburg Address was received. Dr. King often took drafts of speeches prepared by his aides, and then molded them to fit his needs. When Dr. King put the finishing touches on the draft of the speech, the “I Have a Dream” part was not in the speech. As Dr. King was finishing his speech, one of his favorite gospel singers, Mahalia Jackson, twice yelled out to “tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King put down his prepared text, and then delivered the powerful “I Have a Dream” speech with which he is forever remembered.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial