Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the foreground with other people standing attentively in the background

"I Have a Dream" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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So you’re going to teach Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, this powerful speech has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it has its challenges—particular allusions and outmoded language—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying King’s speech will give them insight into the civil rights movement, the history of segregation, and important sociological issues surrounding economic equality and voting rights protection. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1963
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9 and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 1,700
  • Author: Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Primary Source Oration
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Person
  • Setting: Washington, D.C., 1963
  • Structure: Expository Speech
  • Mood: Defiant, Inspirational, Resolved

Texts that Go Well with “I Have a Dream”

The United States Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, marks the founding of the United States as an independent nation, rather than a colony of Great Britain. King references the Declaration several times throughout his speech, grounding the values of the civil rights movement in the values of the American Revolution. In the Declaration, one can find ideas and patterns of language which King employs to great effect in his rhetoric.

The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas (1962), edited by Louis Fischer, can show students where King derived his own ideas and tactics for the civil rights movement. Mohandas Gandhi, who successfully helmed the nonviolent Indian independence movement in the 1940s, was a key influence for King. Gandhi’s writings cover concepts important to King, such as civil disobedience and satyagraha, which King refers to as “soul force” in “I Have a Dream.”

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., was published in April of 1963, just a few months before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In this open letter, King directly responds to“A Call for Unity,” a letter criticizing King’s methods that was published four days earlier by eight white clergymen from Birmingham. King’s letter provides a deeper look into his ideology and social criticism, which can be contrasted with the more inspirational mode of his speech.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” is a speech given by Malcolm X in 1964. Another influential civil rights leader, Malcolm X acknowledged the anger of black Americans and urged them to take greater action on behalf of their own empowerment. In this speech, he says that 1964 will be a monumental year in which black Americans must vote for change and prepare to defend themselves against oppression and violence. While Malcolm X points to a similar goal as King, the path he lays out is different.

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? is the last book King wrote. It was published in 1967, the year before his death. It reflects on the progress made by the civil rights movement. But it also addresses points of regression, pointing to parts of the country that have suffered more economic disparity and segregation between black and white Americans than before the civil rights era. King also shares his thoughts on the Black Power Movement, making this text a fitting companion to Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a 1976 novel by Mildred D. Taylor that takes place in rural Mississippi in the 1930s. It is the coming-of-age story of Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old black girl whose family owns a farm. Over the course of the novel, Cassie becomes aware of the effects of racism on her life and the lives of those around her. Though set many years before the advent of the civil rights movement, Roll of Thunder offers students a historically accurate and emotionally engaging account of the environment from which it grew.

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Key Points of the Speech