In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refers to Abraham Lincoln as the “great American.”
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War in 1863 (100 years, or “five score years,” before King’s speech in 1963), freed the slaves in the South. (It was not until the Thirteenth Amendment that slavery would formally be abolished throughout all of the United States.) But King argues that Lincoln’s words have not been fulfilled.
One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in both the literal and symbolic shadow of Lincoln, King makes many allusions to Lincoln—not only to the Emancipation Proclamation but also to the Gettysburg Address. King’s phrase “five score years ago” recalls Lincoln’s phrase,
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln wanted to ground his words in history by connecting his words and actions to the Founding Fathers, who established this nation with the Declaration of Independence, which emphasizes that all men are created equal. King also makes a similar connection to history, making a timeline that starts with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and continues to the great American, Abraham Lincoln, signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. King then extends the timeline to his present moment, the “fierce urgency of now,” August 28, 1963. On that day, King exhorted the crowd and all of his fellow Americans to keep working toward the dream promised since the very beginning of the country, a dream that Lincoln and all great Americans work toward, a dream in which every person, no matter the color of his or her skin, will finally be free.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”