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Last Updated on November 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

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The Life and Work of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. His parents were devout Baptists and his father was a preacher. King followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued training as a Baptist minister. From early in his training, King rejected a literalistic view of the Bible and of Christian doctrine. He was more interested in how Christian principles could be applied to contemporary social issues. In 1954, King took a post as pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. The following year, he completed his doctoral studies in theology and became involved in the mounting civil rights movement.

  • King’s first major involvement came through the Montgomery bus boycott, which ran through most of 1956 and galvanized the civil rights community. In 1957, King assembled and helmed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which became one of the primary arms of the civil rights movement. As the leader of the SCLC, King was an exponent of nonviolent protest, encouraging other civil rights activists to rally prominently but peacefully. Until his assassination in 1968, King was at the forefront of numerous civil rights campaigns, including the Birmingham campaign, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The Delivery of “I Have a Dream”: King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The peaceful protest was attended by more than two hundred and fifty thousand people of all races and from across the United States. The purpose of the march was to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and to advocate for equal protection and economic opportunities for black Americans. Although the utility and legacy of the march are subject to debate, it was undoubtedly the largest and most publicized rally of King’s life.

  • Some civil rights activists, Malcolm X most prominently among them, viewed the march as a futile affair. From this perspective, the event was so carefully managed by white members of the government and media that its core aim—to freely express the frustrations and desires of the black community—was left unrealized.
  • For others, the march was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. It arguably gave the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the momentum necessary to be passed in Congress, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s hope for the event.

The Civil Rights Movement: The civil rights movement was an organized response to the inequality and injustice that black Americans experience in the United States. The movement took place primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, but it has its roots in earlier events.

  • After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Americans were able to participate in political life and move upward in society through educational and economic opportunities. Black men were given the right to vote in 1870. However, some state governments introduced new legislation to maintain racial segregation. These took the form of “Jim Crow laws,” which were legitimized on a national level by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The ruling deemed it constitutional to maintain “separate but equal” facilities for white and black citizens, upholding systemic segregation in Southern states.
  • In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which dictated that federal positions were open to citizens of all races, religions, and national origins. Black Americans served heroically in WWII, despite facing racial discrimination. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ending officially sanctioned racial discrimination in the US Armed Forces.
  • In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The resistance to their integration showed many Americans the depth of racist sentiment in the South and illustrated the frustratingly delayed effects of progressive legislation. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted just over a year. The boycott ended when the district court decision of Browder v. Gayle—which deemed bus segregation unconstitutional—was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
  • In 1957, President Eisenhower signed the first Civil Rights Act, which addressed the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. 
  • The civil rights movement captured the country’s attention in 1963 with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Within a year, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed several of the concerns of the March’s protesters, protecting voter’s rights and prohibiting inequality and segregation in education and employment.
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