In Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, section one begins by referring to theEmancipation Proclamation, signed fifty years before by a "great American" (President Abraham Lincoln), a symbol of hope for "millions of Negro slaves."
However, King points out, a century later, the document's promise has not been fulfilled, and blacks still suffer in the face of "discrimination" and "segregation," often relegated to places of poverty while those around them prosper; the Negro is an "exile in his own land."
King uses a metaphor, that blacks have joined in Washington, D.C., to "cash a check," which draws its "funds" from the promises made by the founding fathers when they signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, granting all men the rights promised therein. King continues the metaphor saying that the check received is "bad," but...
We refused to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
King says it is not the time to wait, but to rise up and demand "payment." To wait would be disastrous, and America's blacks must seize this moment to change their world forever, in gaining their rights of "citizenship." Until this happens, the "whirlwind of revolt" will continue, but he cautions that "wrongful deeds" and "bitterness and hatred" must be avoided.
In the second section, King outlines the "rules" of this "revolt," which requires "dignity and discipline," and the need to forgo a descent to the use of violence.
Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
He reminds the crowd not to distrust all white people, for many stand beside the blacks in their battle for equality. The destiny of both races is joined. He cautions: "We cannot walk alone." King reminds listeners that the movement should always go forward, never in reverse. Some people are asking civil rights "devotees" when they will be satisfied. King declares:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors...
These include police brutality, segregation in businesses open only to whites, and laws that keep blacks living in poverty. There can be no "For Whites Only" if they are to be free; this includes the right to vote throughout the nation. Using a simile, King states:
...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
King acknowledges the trials many there have faced, calling them "veterans of creative suffering," and that they should return home knowing things will change.
The third section leads into the memorable "mantra" that rings still today, long after Dr. King's death: "I have a dream." Through repetition, King makes a list of the hopes he has for all blacks in America, rousing the hearts of those present and around the world, with his powerful words and images. He speaks of the Declaration of Independence again, that "all men are created equal." He hopes that sons of slaves and slave owners can find peace between them; that hotbeds of injustice will become havens of freedom and justice. He dreams that one day his children might live in a country :
...where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Dr. King alludes to Alabama's racist governor, George Wallace, hoping that state will one day see children of all colors united. King leaves with a hope of brotherhood, freedom and equality, for all, "from sea to shining sea."