Analysis

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

 

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a Baptist minister from Georgia had stood out as one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most compelling, persuasive and powerful orators.

 

Martin Luther King’s combination of incredible public speaking skills and nonviolent approach to achieving equal rights for African Americans has made him one of the most revered and important figures in modern history.

 

On August 28, 1963, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and spoke to more than 250,000 people. His speech, known today as the “I Have a Dream Speech”, has since gone down in history as one of history’s greatest.

 

The speech

 

Although it was undoubtedly his most famous address, the “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t King’s first dream-related public speech. Throughout the early 1960s, he had used the contrast between the American Dream and the very different reality faced by African Americans as key point in his addresses.

 

Despite being the most famous line of his March on Washington speech, the text “I Have a Dream” wasn’t part of King’s planned speech. It was originally known as the “Normalcy, Never Again” speech and differed hugely from the speech King delivered.

 

Clarence Benjamin Jones, King’s close friend and personal counsel, noted that due to the demanding logistics of arranging the March on Washington, the speech wasn’t a priority and King “didn’t know what he was going to say” just 12 hours before.

 

As he stepped onto the podium, King started talking about the injustices faced by the African-American community. He alluded to important events in American history, from the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

 

It wasn’t until Mahalia Jackson shouted to King from the crowd, telling him to “tell them about the dream, Martin”, that he strayed from his notes. His improvisation on the theme of the American Dream became one of history’s most famous speeches:

 

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

 

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

 

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

 

I have a dream today!”

 

The significance

 

Martin Luther King was an incredibly compelling, engaging speaker, and his speech could have easily gone down as one of many great addresses he gave. But the Dream Speech stood out, both because of its content and its public significance.

 

The speech was given at the peak of the March on Washington with the entire USA watching. It showed the public that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t going away, and it showed King’s supporters that their efforts had been entirely worthwhile.

 

More than anything, the speech marked a turning point in America’s approach to its multiracial population. President Kennedy had watched the speech on TV and saw it as a victory for the Civil Rights Movement; a cause his administration supported.

 

Later in 1963, TIME named King its Man of the Year. A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending discrimination and racism – at the time, he was the youngest winner in the award’s history.

 

On July 2, 1964, less than a year after King’s speech, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, colour, religion, gender or national origin. The Civil Rights Movement that Martin Luther King had led was a success.