What is the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?

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From almost all accounts, when King gave his "I Have a Dream" stump speech (he had delivered it before) to the crowds on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1963, this was a particularly powerful and riveting event in the civil rights movement. King outdid himself in his delivery, electrifying...

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From almost all accounts, when King gave his "I Have a Dream" stump speech (he had delivered it before) to the crowds on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1963, this was a particularly powerful and riveting event in the civil rights movement. King outdid himself in his delivery, electrifying an audience composed of both blacks and whites. It was one of those occasions where the message and the moment meshed magnificently.

Beyond that, the speech itself is a masterwork of rhetoric or persuasion. King convincingly pounds home his point that blacks can no longer be "patient" and wait for justice. They have waited, he says, a hundred years, always with the promise that if they wait a little longer, their day will come. King declares that day is now, and that there is no reason to delay any longer. He speaks of the "fierce urgency of now."

Further, he appeals to whites as well as blacks in this speech, knowing that blacks are a minority and that he needs white support. He addresses to white self-interest, saying the following:

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

But he also reassures his white audience that blacks don't plan to engage in violence or wrong-doing to obtain their rights.

He strategically ends the speech in a stirring way by appealing to the highest ideals of black and whites and envisioning a time of equality.

The speech galvanized public support for equal rights for blacks—support that, when Johnson some time later became President, translated into landmark legislation protecting black rights.

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One of the most important goals of King's "I Have a Dream" speech was to remind the American people that the goal of true freedom for African Americans had not yet been realized, and he began the speech by using lines alluding to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, an opening designed to link Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to King's speech on the Washington Mall in 1963.  Implicit in the opening sentence of King's speech is that, despite the passage of 100 years, the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was still, in most respects, a promise, not a reality.

Among other things, King reminded his audience that the Declaration of Independence extended a promise of freedom to all Americans, and he used an economic metaphor to get his point across: he said that African Americans were there to cash a check, a promissory note created by the Declaration, and it was up to the American people to make sure that check was not returned marked "insufficient funds."  His use of the "check" metaphor was particularly effective because it brought the abstract concept of seeking freedom into the real world--many people in his audience and beyond the Mall, white and black, understood the contract implied by a check presented for payment.

On the whole, the importance of King's speech was that it brought into focus, particularly for the masses of people not engaged in the struggle for civil rights, that the struggle was a work in progress.

 

 

 

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Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered to thousands of observers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, essentially established King as the national spokesperson for the civil rights movement. King had long been recognized as an important leader in the movement, but this speech, thanks in part to its power and elegance, and also to its setting and visibility, brought King the acclaim of white liberals. Later that year, he was TIME Magazine's man of the year, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. It was in many ways the crowning achievement of King's career, mostly it helped to raise pressure on the federal government to pass a Civil Rights Act, which they did in 1964.

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