Who does Dr. King refer to by the epithet "Great American"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.”

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. He is the "great American" in whose "symbolic shadow" the attendees of King's address literally stand on the grounds before the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC, in August of 1963. However, Dr. King's reference is somewhat ironic, here, as he goes on to emphasize that precisely one hundred years later, black people remain, by any measure of equality, fundamentally not free, not free to vote, not free to peaceably assemble, not free from violence. While Lincoln's decree became "a beacon of hope" for African Americans, they exist still within the shadow of injustice and continued oppression. Further, assembled on the grounds of the nation's capital, it is manifestly apparent that the promises signified by this city designed (In part by black architect, Benjamin Banneker) as a series of monuments celebrating democracy, have not been delivered to black Americans. They have no political "capital" in this place, and they have come, in part, to reclaim and "cash the check" that came back marked "insufficient funds" on the promise of equality established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial