Dr. King’s speech is powerful because of its structure. The three main parts to the speech can be seen as embodying much of what the Civil Rights Movement was about.
In the construction of the speech that represents “the past,” Dr. King explores the plight of African-Americans in American history. Dr. King uses the phrase “one hundred years later” to help illuminate the struggle intrinsic to people of color. The focus on the past is how Dr. King evokes the struggle of slavery, post-slavery, and how the current fight for social equality has its roots in the past.
When Dr. King contrasts the plight of African-Americans with the past, he also is able to suggest that the fight for Civil Rights is uniquely American. It is here in which Dr. King argues that there is a “promissory note” that needs to be fulfilled.
As a result, Dr. King is able to pivot into the second part of the speech that constitutes the present tense. The speech was delivered as part of an event entitled “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The focus of the event was to raise awareness of the economic and social injustice that African-Americans face in the modern setting. Event leaders like Bayard Rustin understood that there had to be a firm statement being made that would move the issue of Civil Rights to the forefront of American consciousness. This meant that economic injustice and social injustice had to be raised so that White Americans could recognize that something was fundamentally wrong in society. Dr. King uses this in his speech when he talks about how African-Americans are situated on a “lonely island of poverty” in the midst of a “vast ocean of material prosperity.” In such a contrast, Dr. King is able to evoke how modern America is at a critical juncture, one where the steps towards change can be undertaken in order to create a vision of the future where people from different narratives can “sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
As a result, Dr. King is able to create a vision of the future as the third part of the speech. In this section, Dr. King suggests that the dream is one where individuals can envision a world where social and economic equality are present. Racial harmony is achieved in Dr. King’s “dream,” a realm where the past and present have merged to make the future better than what was. It is this portion of the speech wehre Dr. King’s repetition of “I Have a Dream” becomes poignant and quite stirring. Dr. King’s speech is constructed in the same way that a human being sees time. The past has led to the present, which has set the stage for the future. In portioning out his speech in such a manner, Dr. King is able to humanize a political struggle, making Civil Rights for people of color an encompassing issue for all Americans.