"I Have a Dream" Speech Questions and Answers
by Martin Luther King Jr.

"I Have a Dream" Speech book cover
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What was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s purpose in giving the "I Have a Dream" Speech?

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Mary Sutton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is a more radical aspect to King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Though its primary message is one of true reconciliation, it directly addresses the persistent degradation of many black people, who continued to live in dire poverty. They were not protected by the law but, instead, victimized by it: 

But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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.

King's purpose was to highlight the ways in which America persistently failed to live up to its promises. In a way, it is a stinging critique of the nation's most important documents—including the Declaration of Independence. His speech concludes that, without change, the words that we hold sacred are empty rhetoric.

The speech is also a warning to those who "underestimate the determination of the Negro." To do so would be "fatal." The March on Washington was a call "to remind America of the fierce urgency of now." He also directly responds to those who requested slower progress toward integration by saying the following: "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." Finally, he addresses his more militant, and separatist, fellow activists (namely, Malcolm X) by insisting that "their [white people's] destiny is tied up with our [black people's] destiny" and that there can be no progress without working with all Americans. At the same time, he does not denigrate the "new militancy," but describes it as "marvelous."

King's speech is a remarkable piece of writing for its balance and its force.

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carolynosborne eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his well-known "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. President Kennedy had proposed a Civil Rights Bill in Congress and the march was to support that effort. 

At this time in history, African Americans had few rights, particularly in the southern portion of the United States. They had the technical right to vote, but racists did everything possible to keep them from voting, including murder. They had the technical right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but the Ku Klux Klan tried to keep people in a state of terror. Outside of these technical rights, African Americans were not allowed to attend the same schools, eat in the same area of restaurants, use the same restrooms, or even drink out of the same water fountains as white people. It was difficult for them to get jobs that weren't for menial labor. 

The yearning for freedom was strong in the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had freed enslaved people on January 1, 1863, but these people were still not truly free. 

King's purpose in giving the speech, then, was to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation proclamation by showing the majesty of American rhetoric from the great texts that influenced the development of this country (the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and even patriotic songs such as "My Country Tis of Thee") and comparing that to African American's everyday lives. He then tells of his dream that things will change, so he provides hope for the future.

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