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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Teaching Approaches

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King’s Use of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s background as a Baptist minister gave him experience in crafting powerful orations that moved his audience. In “I Have a Dream,” King employs ethos, pathos, and logos—the three rhetorical modes delineated by Aristotle in his volume Rhetoric. Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker. Pathos refers to the emotions of the audience. Logos refers to the acuity of the argument itself.

  • For discussion: Speakers often establish ethos by drawing attention to their qualifications, reputation, and knowledge. Does King try to establish his credibility in the speech? If so, how?
  • For discussion: What is King’s central argument? Examine the central argument over the course of the speech. What conclusion does King reach, and what premises form its foundation? 
  • For discussion: How does King appeal to the emotions of his audience? Which emotions does he draw upon to impress his point?

King’s Evocation of National Pride: Throughout his speech, King refers to monumental figures and documents from American history. He claims that equality for all people is necessary “if America is to be a great nation” in the image set forth by its founders. In his demand for equality, King asks for the most American of values, as described in the Declaration of Independence: “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In doing so, King situates the civil rights movement as a distinctly American one and draws on the national pride of his audience.

  • For discussion: King says that his dream is “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” How would you define the American dream? Compare your definition of the American dream to King’s dream. What are the similarities and/or differences between the two?
  • For discussion: King and other civil rights activists protested laws that they perceived to be unjust. In some cases, they intentionally broke laws to prove their points, often ending up in jail. In fact, King was imprisoned for protesting only a few months prior to delivering “I Have a Dream.” How does King distinguish between law and justice? How does he envision the path to a better nation and better laws? 
  • For discussion: King directly addresses black Americans in his speech, encouraging them to sustain their faith in the dream of equality, to work alongside white Americans to achieve this goal, and to continue along the path of nonviolent resistance. How does King frame the contributions of white Americans participating in the civil rights movement? How does King address the difficulties that Americans of color face in trusting white Americans?

Turning Dreams into Reality:King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. The year after its delivery, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial segregation in workplaces, schools, and all public facilities and services. The act also banned unequal voter-registration restrictions, often used in the South to exclude black voters from participation. By considering King’s speech in the context of the civil rights movement and even contemporary culture, students will gain a better understanding of its significance. (Note: These discussion questions rely on extratextual and historical materials.)

  • For discussion: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was considered a success for the civil rights movement. Compare the provisions of the act to King’s dream. To what extent does the Civil Rights Act of 1964 align with King’s dream? Where does it diverge?
  • For discussion: King delivered this speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. How is economic opportunity tied to freedom? Why might some people wish to limit economic opportunity for others?
  • For discussion: King addresses the issue of poverty disproportionately affecting people of color when he laments that black Americans live “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” One of King’s chief objectives was for black Americans to gain economic freedom, particularly through living wages and good jobs. How does King’s dream of economic equality compare to the current state of affairs in the United States?

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • King discusses the injustices that people of color face, such as being unable to find overnight lodging at hotels or inns, being denied entry into restaurants and theaters, or being forced to sit separately—usually in less desirable locations—in public. What would a completely equal society look like? What might it take to make society more equal?
  • King’s speech contains musical elements, such as alliteration and anaphora. Locate these elements in the text and identify the purpose(s) they serve. How do they enhance the speech and deliver King’s message more effectively than prosaic speech? If possible, listen to an audio recording of this speech. How does King convey the speech’s lyrical elements?
  • King uses economic metaphors in his speech. For example, he discusses cashing a check at the “bank of justice.” What effect do such metaphors have on King’s overall message? How might they tie into the purpose of the protest (the March for Jobs and Freedom)? How might they tie into the subject of economic equality?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

King’s References may Exclude Some Students: King makes explicit biblical references, and his speech mirrors the patterns often used by preachers in their sermons. Some students might be uncomfortable with the overtly Christian language, or they may feel disconnected from King’s message, feeling that the speech does not include them due to their differing perspectives on religious matters.

  • What to do: Explain that King was a Christian minister and that many black civil rights activists were also ministers or heavily involved in the church. Use this to fuel further discussion. Discuss with students the nature of King’s goals, which were focused on political and social changes, not on matters of religious reform. Ask the students to approach the speech from the perspective of a non-Christian. Can they still find the Christian images and metaphors valuable?

The Language Around Race has Changed: The accepted words used to signify a person’s race have changed significantly over time, and they continue to change. King uses the word “Negro,” a word that was common in 1960s but which now carries a pejorative connotation and is rarely used today. Some people are uncomfortable using the word “black” and prefer to use “African-American,” whereas others prefer the former. Still others prefer, in many contexts, the more inclusive “people of color.”

  • What to do: Discuss how the language used to talk about race in the United States has changed. Encourage students to research why certain words were used and have since fallen out of favor, such as “Negro,” while others are undergoing a resurgence (“black,” instead of “African-American,” as in “Black Lives Matter”). Does the language used to describe race matter? Why or why not?

Alternative Approaches to Teaching “I Have a Dream”

While the approaches and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the speech.

Focus on nonviolent resistance. A central component of King’s philosophy is an emphasis on nonviolent resistance as the most practical and moral path to political change. He had learned about Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement and believed in the efficacy of Gandhi’s method. Although King’s peaceful principles made him popular, some civil rights activists criticized King’s strict adherence to nonviolent means. Most notably, Malcolm X encouraged black Americans to secure their freedom “by any means necessary,” a stance that allows for the use of violence in certain contexts. Discuss the principles of nonviolent resistance, and consider the ways in which “I Have a Dream” upholds and expresses those principles. Discuss, too, the effectiveness of nonviolent protest in the context of the civil rights movement, evaluating the impact of such nonviolent protests as the March on Washington.  

Focus on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Approximately two hundred and fifty thousand protesters attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Its explicit goals included a comprehensive civil rights bill that would protect the right to vote, grant citizens redress for constitutional violations, and desegregate all public schools; a massive federal program to eliminate unemployment and train and place workers; and an act barring discrimination in employment. Several organizations either directly led the March, or supported it and sent representatives to it. Discuss the details of the March: the delays in its scheduling, the civil rights leaders who were involved, and the program of the day’s events. Discuss the ways in which the march was mediated by the federal government and the news media, as well as the impact of that mediation. Finally, consider the roster of speakers and performers, particularly the lack of women speakers and the prevalence of white performers. What might these exclusions and inclusions suggest about the event?

Focus on racism in the South vs. the North. The Southern states were the primary stage of the civil rights movement. The Southern states were host to the vast majority of American slaveholders prior to the Civil War, which led to a larger black population in the South than in the North. But King acknowledges that racism exists in the Northern states as well, and that black Americans in the North also suffer from inequality. Review the causes of the divide between North and South on topics of race. Review, too, the methods of systemic racism used in the North—such as gerrymandering—and compare them to those used in the South at the time of the civil rights movement.

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