"I Have a Dream" speech Characters

The main characters in the “I Have a Dream” speech include Martin Luther King Jr., victims of segregation, and opponents of the civil rights movement.

  • Martin Luther King Jr., the speaker, details the evils of segregation and encourages his followers to continue struggling for equality. 
  • Victims of segregation addressed in this speech are African Americans in the South, who have been promised freedom but repeatedly denied it.
  • Opponents of the civil rights movement include the “vicious racists” of Alabama, who uphold segregation in law and society.

Characters

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Martin Luther King Jr. 

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Dr. King is the author and speaker of the “I Have a Dream” speech and establishes himself as an authority and teacher on the topic of the civil rights movement. King’s many biblical allusions throughout the speech make it reminiscent of a sermon, which sets King in the role of a pastor preaching to his congregation. King speaks against the evils of segregation and of his hope for America, and encourages his “congregation” to press on in their struggle for equality with the “faith” that their suffering will be rewarded. 

Because this is a speech, the people King mentions are not necessarily characters, yet they tend to fall into several distinct categories. 

Historical Figures

Abraham Lincoln is present for this speech both as a massive sculpture seated just behind King, who is standing at a podium at the Lincoln Memorial, and as the first historical reference made in the speech. King evokes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with “Five score years ago,” reminding his audience of the promise of freedom that had been made to Black Americans so long ago. King also references the founding fathers of America: he characterizes the framers of the Constitution and authors of the Declaration of Independence as signatories to a “bad check” which promised freedom that African Americans still have not received. 

Victims of Segregation 

African Americans in the South have been given a “bad check” promising them freedom and, through segregationist policies, have suffered many horrors and injustices. Among these victims are King’s own children, who are “judged by the color of their skin” instead of by their character. African American citizens witness police brutality, are turned away from hotels, are unable to move outside ghettos, and either cannot vote or see voting as futile. The have been jailed, beaten, and discriminated against in every way; nevertheless, King urges them to hold on to their faith and hope for a better America and to keep struggling to end segregation. 

Opponents of the Civil Rights Movement

King does not focus on the evils of specific individuals in his speech, but he does allude in general terms to enemies of the civil rights movement. He mentions the “vicious racists” of Alabama as well as Alabama governor George Wallace (although King does not name him directly in the speech). It is civil rights opponents who are are asking activists, “When will you be satisfied?” and who have caused the suffering of Black Americans and maintained segregationist laws and policies. 

White Civil Rights Activists

Despite their many opponents, a majority of whom are White, King urges his Black audience to not view all White people as enemies: after all, many of the civil rights activists in attendance of the speech are White. As King explains, these people have realized that their “destiny” and “freedom” are “bound” to those of Black Americans.

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