Unkept Promises: Martin Luther King, Jr., begins “I Have a Dream” with a discussion of American history. He points out the significance of the place and time of the protest: the Lincoln Memorial, one century after Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. King notes the enormous progress set into motion by Lincoln’s proclamation, but states that one hundred years later, black Americans are still not free of segregation, discrimination, and poverty. The country’s founding documents promise all Americans the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but for black Americans this promise has proven to be a “bad check.” By King’s account, civil rights activists refuse to believe that equality and justice are limited resources, and so have come to cash that check regardless.
“The Fierce Urgency of Now”: King emphasizes the importance of making changes immediately. He criticizes slower approaches to social progress and excoriates the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Until the nation addresses the urgent needs of its black citizens, there will be no peace in society.
For Black Citizens: King addresses black Americans to discuss the question of how to achieve justice. He asks them to refrain from hatred and violent protest. He encourages them to recognize that some white people support civil rights as well, and that they cannot accomplish their goals alone. King affirms the discontent that his black listeners feel. He acknowledges the difficulties that many of them faced in order to be present at the March, and he describes their suffering as redemptive. He charges them to go back to their home states and neighborhoods armed with hope and wary of despair.
Dreams of Freedom and Equality: King describes his dream for the future of the United States. His dream, “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” is that the country will live up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. King draws a metaphor between the equality of people and the leveling of the land, as valleys are raised and mountains made low, “and the glory of the Lord . . . revealed.” He encourages his listeners to return to their homes with renewed faith in civil rights and in the power of his dream, which will motivate them through the hard work ahead.
Closing Remarks: King alludes to the patriotic song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” expanding on the phrase “Let freedom ring.” He calls for freedom to ring across the country—the northern, western, and southern states alike. He concludes with a summation of his dream: for all Americans to be able to say “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”