Who is the "great American" in Martin Luther King's speech? 

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mlsldy3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the famous speech given on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the great American. He is talking about Abraham Lincoln. He refers in his speech to the fact that Lincoln was the one who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves. Abraham Lincoln was against slavery and by signing the proclamation, he took a stand to help stop the horrible tragedy that was slavery. Dr. King looked to Lincoln as the forerunner of the great fight they were now facing. Dr. King was the most peaceful of protesters and encouraged others to be also. He used what Lincoln had done, as the example they all needed to follow. The speech was given at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and has become one of the most famous speeches of all time.

"5 score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."

Dr. King went on to say that the fight was still not over, it was just beginning for them. Yes, slavery had been done away with, but the injustice blacks were facing then was just as horrible. Dr. King knew they had a long fight ahead of them.

price7781 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dr. King’s “shout out” to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, shows how important Lincoln was to helping establish the civil rights of black Americans 100 years before the famous I Have a Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.  First of all, King uses the same rhetoric as Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address when King starts his speech with, “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address started with the eloquent words, “Four score and seven years ago . . . "  Both speakers are talking about specific times in our nation’s history when people sought and were given freedom.  Lincoln is referring to the Declaration of Independence when we broke ties with Great Britain; King is referring to the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.

By using the same opening words and by referring to similar historical events that chronicled the freedom of people, King is paying homage to Abraham Lincoln. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "great American" that Martin Luther King refers to at the beginning of his speech is Abraham Lincoln.  There are two ways that you can see this.  First, King makes an oblique reference to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  He says that it was "Five score years ago" that the "great American" lived.  This is a reference to Lincoln's phrase "four score and seven years ago" in the Gettysburg Address.  Second, King then says that what happened 100 years previous was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  This was signed during the Civil War by President Lincoln, thus committing the Union to the idea of freeing the slaves.

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"I Have a Dream" speech

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