Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the foreground with other people standing attentively in the background

"I Have a Dream" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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What are five issues mentioned in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech?

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Unfulfilled Promises

The Emancipation Proclamation established that all slaves could enjoy new freedom. The Declaration of Independence guarantees unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people in America. Yet King states that when African Americans have shown up to cash in this metaphorical check guaranteed to them through those foundational documents, they have been told that there are "insufficient funds" available.

An Urgent Need for Action

King responds to those who say that he needs to take a less direct approach in his methods and that gradual progress is good progress. King refutes this idea, stating:

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

King asserts that these long-awaited freedoms can wait no longer.

The Need for Unity with the White Community

King weaves the importance of a supportive white community into his message. He states that they must learn to walk this journey together and that African Americans cannot walk alone. This builds to a powerful image later in the speech: "One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." He realizes that if adults lead effectively, younger generations will greatly benefit.

The Importance of Not Meeting Evil with Evil

King was a firm believer in nonviolent protests and in general Christian principles. Therefore, he states that "in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds." King realizes that in order for their fight to be seen as worthy and in order to make progress, their actions had to be above reproach, always showing dignity and discipline.

The Power of Hope

King looks at some serious injustices in places like Mississippi and Georgia and asks his audience to dream of freedom and justice, even in places of historically significant injustices. And he also asks his audience to go back to these places, all over the country, and instigate the change needed to make those dreams a reality. Thus, each audience member becomes a beacon of hope in their own communities all over the nation, furthering King's message.

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King’s speech mentions several issues facing African Americans. In the second paragraph, he mentions segregation (the “manacles of segregation”), discrimination (the “chains of discrimination“), poverty (African Americans live on a “lonely island of poverty”), and social isolation (they are “exiles in their own land”).

Later in the speech, King identifies several other issues. In the ninth paragraph (the “we can never be satisfied" section), King mentions police brutality; in the succeeding paragraphs, he mentions discrimination against African Americans in hotels, lack of economic mobility, and “whites only“ signs. He alludes also to voter suppression and the lack of viable candidates that support African American issues (“the Negro in Mis­sissippi cannot vote, and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote”).

King also points out issues within his own movement, such as his concern over violent protests (“we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force”) and the need to continue to advocate for equal rights.

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. It was part of a civil rights demonstration called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The demonstration was attended by over 200,000 people and was capped by King’s speech.

King’s purpose was to state, as eloquently and persuasively as possible, the plight of African-Americans (usually referred to as “negroes” at that time, a word that is no longer considered politically correct) in modern America. His primary contention was that African-Americans were promised freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation near the end of the Civil War, but never fully granted the privileges and rights associated with such freedom.

Many of the issues addressed by Dr. King occur in a paragraph about halfway through the speech. He starts the paragraph with this line:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?"

This gives King the chance to use the rhetorical techniques of repetition and parallel structure, as he lists the reasons why they cannot yet be satisfied. These reasons are social issues that have created the need for the civil rights movement.

Issue--Police Brutality:

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.


We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only."

Issue--Economic Injustice:

We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

Issue--Voting Rights:  

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Later in the speech, as King is building toward his climax, he begins to use the phrase “I have a dream.” He makes the appeal personal by mentioning his own children and the prejudice they will face.

Issue--Racial Prejudice:

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.

This speech is a beautiful example of the rhetorical and persuasive techniques that we work on in school. Next time you wonder why you have to study this “boring” stuff in class, remind yourself that people like Dr. King used these very techniques to change the world for the better.

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