A Dream Identified: Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream”
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” before thousands of people. His speech sought to highlight the message of the civil rights movement, of equal rights for people of any race or religion of people. In poetic prose, full of metaphors, not only did King espouse his dream of a brighter future but he also called out the people who were trying to stifle these same dreams. King’s speech was not a gentle nudging at America’s conscience but a forceful rallying cry for the end to segregation and other forms of discrimination. It was a cleverly worded challenge to America to live up to it’s own ideals of freedom.
One of the most notable things about King’s speech was the broadness of his audience. While the speech was delivered at a major civil rights protest, attended by religious leaders, politicians, musicians, activists, etc., he was not limiting his speech just to those in attendance or watching on TV. Throughout the speech King addresses the different sides to the struggle, all part of America.
The America King speaks of in the first part of his speech is the governmental arm of the country, the policymakers and politicians who created and continued to keep safe the discriminatory practices of the past. By giving the speech in Washington D.C. alone, he was addressing legislative and judicial branches of government who had long neglected to fight on the side of civil rights. King compares the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to a financial promissory note, one “to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men […] would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (King 4). He called out the policymakers of past and present when he stated, “America has defaulted on this promissory note” (King 5). When he says, “so we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom” (King 5), he is not just an urging of the government to listen to the voices of all people but also stating a fact of a continued struggle if they did not.
I found it interesting how the speech contracts and expands in King’s range of audience. With the first part he is addressing an entity: government. The following part turns inward, to the people fighting the fight alongside him. They would fight, he urged, but let it be without violence, “we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” (King 7). Once again, King doesn’t urge his fellow freedom fighters, he states firmly how it will, how it “must” be. The following two paragraphs addressing the civil rights workers are peppered with sentences beginning with the phrase, “we must” and “We cannot” and “We can never” (King 7,8). It is as if he is setting down the testaments and trials of the civil rights movements. I believe, in places like this within the speech that King’s background with religious leadership shows through the most – more so even than when he speaks of God. The entire speech has the feel of a sermon, not a dry political speech.
Perhaps because I am of a generation who has seen and heard Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” many times throughout their lifetime, I am able to hear him in my mind as I read the speech. I am able to hear the rising and falling of his speech, and in his delivery Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was every bit a reverend and an activist. However, when reading the speech it is easy to see that it was not simply the delivery of King’s speech, which made it so powerful but also the overall tone and breadth. As already noted, his choice of words such as “must” and “cannot” speak volumes as to his message to the people marching by his side.
In the final portion (from paragraph 12 on) of the speech, in which King speaks to all of America, is probably the most sermonized portion, attempting to touch on a congregation across state and racial boundaries. He mentions Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California and Louisiana; it is not by pure chance that he wrote the speech in this way. It was rather a way for him to bring the civil rights movement out of the south and inner cities where it was most noticeably boiling over and bring it before the rest of America. King was letting the people know that though Mississippi may be “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression” (King 17), the discrimination was not just a southern problem.
King’s “dream” which he repeats and expands on throughout the final portion of the speech, paragraphs 19-26 each begin with “I have a dream”, in some instances places his dream of an equal society in direct comparison to the nightmares the inequalities had created. King makes mention of the “heat of oppression” (King 17) in Mississippi and the “vicious racists” (King 20) in Alabama but does not dwell on the negativity which has created the dream. Instead, his use of positive imagery in which, his dream shows a day when, “the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight” (King 22) show his own faith and perceived glory for all men in the cause. King was able to show his true heart and aim, his belief in the greater good that could “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (King 23).
Though worded so as to be inspirational, a non-violent battle cry for equal rights, the brevity of Maritn Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is able to show people who were outside of the movement the true scope of the struggle. His touches on images of slavery, hate, and brutality are able to ground the speech in realism. King’s inclusion of “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” (31), in the grand moral scheme is able to illustrate a non-hypocritical vision of civil rights. However, King’s “dream” lifted it above a mere political speech to a rallying of America to recognize the truth of inequality and to rise against it for the greater good of freedom.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have A Dream.” The Bedford Reader. 10th ed. Ed. Kennedy, X.J., Dorothy M. Kennedy and Jane E. Aaron. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2009. 614-615.