"I Have a Dream" Speech Summary

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, a major civil rights demonstration.

  • King references the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which declared that America would be a land of freedom where all men are created equal. He then states that this promise of freedom has not been achieved for Black Americans.

  • King repeats the phrases "I have a dream" and "with this faith," sharing his vision for a more equal society and reiterating his belief that such a future is attainable.

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Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

Introduction

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington was a monumental day in the civil rights movement and, at the time, was one of...

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Introduction

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington was a monumental day in the civil rights movement and, at the time, was one of the largest peaceful protests in the world. The goals of the March were to create greater economic equality for people of color, especially Black Americans, and to protect the right to vote. These topics—economic equality and voting rights protection—feature heavily in King’s speech. At a broader level, his speech urges the protesters present to have hope for the future of the United States and to continue fighting for social justice.

Summary of King’s Speech

King begins his speech by acknowledging his surroundings. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, he discusses President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued one century prior. King states that, despite the great promise of the proclamation, Black Americans are still not free: They face heavy discrimination and segregation. They cannot fully participate in society. They remain poorer than White Americans. King’s speech, like the March on Washington, means to draw attention to this inequality and oppression.

King states that the US founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, made promises to all Americans regarding their “unalienable rights,” but that people of color have not been able to fully reap those rights. King compares the situation to a “bad check,” meaning that American institutions have failed to deliver what they promised. King speaks on behalf of all the protesters present, stating that they refuse to believe that there is not enough justice to provide equality for all Americans. He believes it is possible to “cash this check” and receive the full benefits of freedom, safety, and equality.

King then states that there is no more time to wait or to make gradual changes. Rather, the United States needs to make change immediately and swiftly. King emphasizes this point through anaphora, repeating the phrase “now is the time.” He explains that those who believe that Black Americans need to merely “blow off steam” will be in for a “rude awakening.” If the demands for equality and freedom are not met, the protest and disruption caused by the civil rights movement will only heighten.

King then addresses the activists of the civil rights movement directly, referring to them as “my people.” He urges them to remember that in order to achieve their goals, they should not let hatred or bitterness affect their actions. He encourages them to avoid physical violence while they protest and to remember that there are many White Americans who want to work towards civil rights as well, as evidenced by their presence at the protest.

After King encourages his audience to continue to protest peacefully, he validates their cause and emotions. He states that Black Americans “can never be satisfied” until their full rights are granted and protected. He gives specific instances of unacceptable circumstances in the United States that need to be corrected, including police brutality, denied access to lodging, limited economic mobility, explicitly racist signs, and voting rights that are denied or suppressed. King reiterates that Black Americans will not be satisfied until justice and righteousness flow through the land.

King acknowledges that many of the protesters have faced hardship as a result of their protest, including time in jail and brutality at the hands of police. He encourages them to have “faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” He tells them to continue to have faith when they return home and to have faith that the situation for people of color in the United States can change.

King shares that even though there are difficulties in realizing the goals of civil rights, he has a dream. King says that his dream is “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He quotes the Declaration of Independence when he shares his dream that the nation will live out the truth “that all men are created equal.” He describes a future in which the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave-owners can come together as equals in the state of Georgia; in which Mississippi will transform into an “oasis” of freedom and justice; in which his “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”; and in which Black children and White children in Alabama will join hands “as sisters and brothers.”

King says that in his dream, the land will be made smooth and equal, with valleys raised up and mountains leveled out, and that this dream is the basis for his hope and faith. He reminds his audience that with faith in the dream of equality and freedom, civil rights activists will be able to continue to fight for freedom for all.

King says that when his dream is realized, Americans will find new meaning in the song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” He quotes a part of it, concluding with the phrase, “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” He claims that if the United States wishes to become a great nation, then freedom needs to ring from every mountainside from every state of the Union, from the northern, western, and southern states alike.

King ends his speech by saying that once freedom rings in all parts of the United States, then people of all races and religions will be able to stand united, equal, and “free at last.”

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