“I Have a Dream”

views updated

“I Have a Dream”

by Martin Luther King, Jr.


A speech made in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.; delivered on August 28, 1963.


In his landmark speech, King cites a one-hundred-year history of denial of equal rights to blacks in the United States, and he calls on both blacks and whites to turn the dream of social equality into a reality.

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

The Speech in Focus

For More Information

Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-1968) accepted his first position as pastor of a Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, after receiving his doctorate in philosophy from Boston University. A year later he rose to national fame by advocating nonviolent civil disobedience in his organization of a successful boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses. King, determined to advance black equality in the United States, soon became the de facto leader of the new civil rights era, and proceeded to travel, write books, and deliver speeches for this cause. He delivered his climactic “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of more than 200,000 onlookers, 60,000 of whom were white. King’s speech inspired a wide audience, galvanizing many to believe in the dream of racial equality. On this historic occasion, the civil rights movement was transformed from a Southern regional struggle into a national one. Before a live audience and all the major news networks, King declared 1963 the year to open the doors of social and economic opportunity. In retrospect, his speech and the March on Washington during which it was delivered formed a pinnacle in the 1960s quest for civil rights.

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

King’s emergence as a civil rights leader

On a December afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, boarded a Montgomery City Lines bus. The bus had a special segregated section for blacks behind the white passengers, and Parks took a seat in the first row of the black section. Sitting in the same row was a black man next to her and two black women across the aisle. When more whites boarded the bus, one was left standing. The driver told the blacks in Parks’s row to rise so the white passenger could sit there. While the three other blacks finally obliged him, Parks refused to stand up. This insubordination led to her getting arrested, which roused the black community into action. What began as a one-day boycott of the city’s bus system by its black riders ended up lasting for more than a year.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, and educated in various states, King had moved to Montgomery, Alabama, the previous year to serve as pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. When leaders of the black community organized themselves into the Montgomery Improvement Association, they unanimously elected King president, and he became the spokesman-leader of the boycott movement. Although a popular minister with a large following, King was not yet a nationally known figure. The boycott proved pivotal in this regard; afterward it would become difficult, if not impossible, for him to remain a private man.

The boycott began on December 5, 1955. On February 1, 1956, four black women lobbied a federal court to issue a ban on segregation in public transportation in Montgomery. On June 4, the court ruled in favor of the women, outlawing such segregation there. Although Alabama officials appealed the decision, on November 13 the United States Supreme Court upheld the district court’s ruling. The Supreme Court’s written order to desegregate the city’s buses arrived on December 20, and the following day the boycott ended. The civil rights movement had won a landmark victory.

Throughout the remainder of the decade, King rose in national stature as he crusaded for civil rights. With the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960, King increased his efforts to involve the federal government in his proposed political, economic, and social changes. He saw in the young president “a leader unafraid of change” (King in Bennett, p. 119). In an article entitled “Equality Now,” published in Nation in February of 1963, King laid out his proposals. He stated that the new administration had the best chance in one hundred years to extend civil rights to black America. King asked for “recognition by the federal government that it has sufficient power at its disposal to guide [the country] through the changes ahead” (King in Bennett, p. 120). During a White House meeting, King urged President Kennedy to develop a plan for a nationwide realization of civil rights. Although the 1960 Civil Rights Act had increased voting protection for black Americans, to King this step signaled only a beginning.

Eventually King’s efforts, along with those of other activists, paid off. They marched, staged sit-ins, and defied local segregation laws. The activists suffered greatly for their efforts, enduring beatings, jailings, the bombing of black churches, and even some murders. In April 1963, just a few months before the March on Washington, King led a nonviolent demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. City police used gushing firehoses, electric cattle prods, and fierce police dogs against the protesters, some of whom were schoolchildren. Television stations broadcast the brutal treatment of the nonviolent protesters to a shocked nation, a sight that roused much of the nation’s sympathies for the black civil rights struggle. Following on the heels of this horror, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was, in essence, a demand for action by Congress.

Finally, in 1964, the United States Congress passed the strongest civil rights act since Reconstruction. It ordered public businesses such as restaurants and hotels to serve all patrons equally, regardless of race or national origin. The act also barred employers from discriminatory practices. A year later it was followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which put an end to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods employed to prevent blacks from voting. These achievements could not have been realized without King’s efforts to elevate the civil rights movement from the local to the national arena.

King’s speechmaking style

Beginning with the Montgomery boycott, King’s speeches were an instrumental part of his civil rights efforts. Scholars point to the various tools of language King used, perhaps the most basic of which is metaphor. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, King compares the March on Washington to cashing a check, suggesting that civil rights are owed to the black citizens of America and it is time to pay up. A second tool used by King is repetition, including the repetition of the same sound within a line and of the same phrase across a series of lines. The speech in question ends with two such series, the “I have a dream” sequence and a “let freedom ring” sequence, whose rhythms stem largely from repetition. Also King typically used language that is both religious and patriotic, thereby elevating his cause into a holy as well as a national crusade. Finally, he used inclusive grammar, like the pronoun we, to enlist white as well as black listeners in his struggle and convince them that “his dream was their dream too” (Lischer, p. 10).

The March on Washington

The civil rights movement gained much of its national following from the historic March on Washington of August 1963. Contrary to popular perception, King did not initiate the plans for this rally. On July 2, 1963, six civil rights leaders of varied backgrounds met at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. They were Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Philip A. Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, Whitney Young of the Urban League, John Lewis of the Southern Christian

Leadership Conference (SCLC), and King, also representing the SCLC. Randolph opened the meeting, stating that he had held the dream of a march on the nation’s capitol for over twenty years. After some discussion, the team decided that Randolph should head the effort, aided by another civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin. They set the date, August 28, 1963. With sixty days to pull the march together, the six men then set out to organize this massive effort.

Preparations began across the nation. In Harlem, a predominantly black section of New York City, Rustin distributed his Organizing Manual No. 1 to two thousand interested leaders. These, in turn, amassed their own followers. King and Wilkins, the two most prominent public figures of the group, appeared jointly on television ads. Despite some interpersonal tensions between them, the men collaborated successfully on the national undertaking. While those planning to participate in the march showed optimism, the city hosting the event clearly felt apprehensive. Authorities in Washington, D.C., took precautions to safeguard the capital against possible rioting—local liquor stores, for example, stopped all alcohol sales. President John F. Kennedy and his military chiefs of staff stood ready for violence with 4,000 troops located in the suburbs and another 15,000 paratroopers on alert in North Carolina. Local hospitals canceled all nonemergency surgeries for the day in case their services were needed, while city courthouses prepared for an evening of all-night criminal hearings.

Meanwhile, Rustin was determined to avert all unrest. He led a staff of two hundred volunteers to the Mall, a famous area of Washington containing national monuments, setting up several hundred portable toilets, twenty-one temporary drinking fountains, and twenty-four first aid stations. In New York’s Riverside Church, another group of volunteers prepared eighty thousand sack lunches for those traveling overnight to make the march. Rustin not only handled the logistics of meeting the visitors’ needs but also organized the speakers. He allowed each orator only seven minutes on the podium, believing that a timely evacuation of the crowd would diminish the chances for violence.

The speakers at the event realized that it was an opportunity for the struggle for civil rights to reach further than the black community. With this in mind, they sought to write speeches that outlined common grievances rather than pointing at particular enemies. John Lewis, an accomplished orator and friend of King’s, helped each of the speakers to add a few lines that outlined common black ideologies. Other aides assisted with the inclusion of language that would sharpen the political points of each address.

King did not begin to write his own speech until the day before the event. In a Washington, D.C., hotel room, he penned his opening line. He completed his address by morning, but the speech he delivered departed from his prepared manuscript midway. He delivered the rest of the speech impromptu, coming up with the inspired second half on the spot. As the last speaker of the day, King took the podium after the attentiveness of listeners had waned. Nonetheless the crowd fell silent as he began.

In his distinctive baritone, King had begun to speak verbatim from his script. Toward the end of his speech, however, he felt himself caught in the momentum of the crowd. Unable to hold fast to his prepared text, King began to preach as his vocation had taught him. Behind him, on the speech platform, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urged the speaker, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin” (Jackson in Branch, p. 882). Although King could not later recall whether or not he had heard the woman, at this point he began introducing his ideas with the words, “I have a dream.”

With a steady, solemn cadence, somewhat restrained in keeping with the serious tone of the occasion, King continued. He listed his variations on the American dream—such as that some day even the state of Mississippi would be transformed into an oasis of freedom—and that other such visions would come to pass. Only when King reached his final words, “Let freedom ring” (King in Branch, p. 882), did he allow himself to smile.

King and the Black Baptist Church

There was a precedent for King’s impromptu, almost sermon-like performance at the March on Washington. King’s father, like his maternal grandfather, served as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. From an early age, King had been exposed to preaching. After his own college training, King joined his father for a time in serving the parish of the family church. From his first day at work, King stressed community involvement to his followers, urging all members to register as voters and to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A natural leader, King also understood the important role the church played in any black community.

Historically, blacks and whites did not always worship in separate houses. A winter morning in 1787, however, helped change this fact. Two black men received reprimands for praying in the whites-only section of the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As a result of this incident, the men organized the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their success in the North sparked a chain reaction of black churches being established across the United States. Blacks would gradually stop worshipping with whites except in places where the black community was not large enough to support its own congregation.

Although Methodists initiated this revolution, the Baptists in the South quickly joined the movement. The church became not only a house of God, but a cornerstone of the black community. Church buildings acted as schoolhouses where black children barred from whites-only public schools received an education. During the peak years of American slavery, between 1800 and 1865, the churches also served as stations for the underground railroad, a network of safe havens that helped runaway slaves. When the practice of slavery ended, in the confusion of the post-Civil War era, the emancipated blacks turned again to the stable symbol of hope that they had relied on in the past—the church. In turn, its leaders provided guidance to their flock in more ways than just spiritual—acting as a community center, providing welfare to the sick and poor, and job training for the able-bodied.

Between the years of 1936 and 1962, the population of the Baptist denomination increased from about 3.8 million to over 7.6 million. The role of the church grew during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott and the role that church leaders had played in organizing the effort, King and one hundred Southern ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the organization, King led the SCLC in a nonviolent campaign to end racial discrimination in the United States.

The Speech in Focus

The speech

Delivering his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King opened with a reference to his surroundings. Recalling Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (also covered in Literature and Its Times), King began, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves” (King, “I Have a Dream,” p. 110). The speech went on to highlight the fact that in spite of the end of slavery, black Americans still did not live as a free people. Although one hundred years have passed between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington, a black man “still finds himself an exile in his own land” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 110).

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check,” King stated (“I Have a Dream,” p. 110). Referring to the Declaration of Independence, (also covered in Literature and Its Times), he noted that the founding fathers promised each American citizen “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 111). He insisted that America has defaulted on its promissory note to its black citizens with regard to these pursuits. At this point in the address, King told his audience, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 111). He urged them not to rest until such equality has been attained. In keeping with his nonviolent philosophy, however, King asked that the quest for freedom not lead to bitterness and hatred toward the oppressors. He told his audience to maintain dignity, to fight physical force with the force of the soul. Along with this seemingly passive resistance, however, King urged his listeners to not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 112). Building to a crescendo, the civil rights leader exhorted the members of the audience to return to their homes knowing that the situation of blacks in America could be changed.

At this point in his address, King abandoned his written text and began what is perhaps the most widely recognized portion of his speech. “On a surge of emotion, more inspired than he had ever been in his life, [he] spoke from his heart” (Oates, p. 260). “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 112). For the remainder of his speech, King repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” instilling in his listeners the same hope for freedom. His dream stemmed from the American dream, the simple belief that all are created equal. This equality, according to King, should translate into a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 112). King remarked that in order for America to become a truly great nation, true freedom must ring throughout its land. Echoing the patriotic lyrics of the song “America” (sometimes called “My Country Tis of Thee”) he asked that freedom be allowed to ring from every mountainside. He cited various mountain ranges across the United States from whence the bells of freedom must ring. Concluding his address, King envisioned a nation of multicultural citizens holding hands singing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 113).

Two speeches in one

King originally shied away from the profession that his father had chosen as a Baptist pastor. An avid scholar, the son had hoped to enter into academia in his professional pursuits. King sought a different vocation than one infused with the vivacious hand-clapping and vocal “amens” of the African American church. While studying for his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College, however, he met two professors who changed his mind. Both Dr. George D. Kelsey and Dr. Benjamin E. Mays were seminary-trained ministers. In their classrooms, they proved to King that religion and academia could mix. With their intelligent, socially relevant sermons, the two men inspired King to follow their examples and become a “real minister” (King in Bennett, p. 27).

Although King successfully mixed the two worlds of spirituality and the intellect, this dichotomy manifested itself in many of his oral addresses. Nowhere was the duality more obvious than in his “l Have a Dream” speech. As previously mentioned, King had prepared a written draft of the speech. The first half of the address reflected the meticulous research that any professional academic would undertake. With its multiple references to historical events, the speech read like a lesson in the struggle for civil rights. Beginning with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, King reminded his audience of the historical roots beneath black America’s struggle for full equality.

The speech then moved from the Emancipation Proclamation to another historical document, the Declaration of Independence. King declared that it was obvious that America had defaulted on its promise of equality to its citizens of color, that it has given his people a bad check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.” He stated, “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 111). With this King quelled rumors that the Kennedy administration had tamed the civil rights movement. Even in this minor rebuttal, however, King maintained a slow cadence and an absence of emotion in his voice. He stuck to his rehearsed script.

When he reached the halfway point of his address, however, the minister in King overruled the statesman and the academic in him. As he took leave of his written speech, his allusions changed from the historical to the religious. He spoke of “waters of righteousness” and of “God’s children” (“I Have a Dream,” pp. 112-13), eliciting the very “amens” and applause that he had shunned in his career. King also wove folk references into his spontaneous speech. He played with the lyrics of “America,” repeating the refrain “Let freedom ring” (“I Have a Dream,” p. 113) several times over. In this manner, he connected with his audience not as a formal speaker, but rather as the minister that he had been for several years. Behind him on the podium, Mahalia Jackson cried out loudly, “My Lord! My Lord,” responding to the religious pitch of the address (Jackson in Branch, p. 882). In testament to his success as a preacher, the most memorable portion of King’s speech remains, to this day, the second half. King’s speech would not be limited by the restraint of unemotional intellect. As he had done in his choice of a vocation, in his address, King simply followed that inspiration that “came to [him]” (King in Branch, p. 882).


Most immediately King drew on his own written draft of the speech, which he revised and departed from as described in the contents section above. Here is a segment from the delivered speech, followed by the same segment from a draft:

The Delivered Speech

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “when will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . . We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. (“I Have a Dream,” p. 12)

The Draft

I read a newspaper editorial recently which speculated upon when the leaders of this civil rights movement would become “satisfied” so that America could return to normalcy. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro boy in Albany, Georgia attends an all-Negro school. . . . We can never be satisfied so long as a Negro in the District of Columbia is restricted to a housing ghetto. We can never be satisfied so long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

(King, “Normalcy—Never Again,” p. 3)

The remainder of this draft, the part King did not deliver because he abandoned his text and veered into an impromptu speech, continues in the same vein, speaking about the importance of rejecting the normalcy that has become racism and embracing “a new, creative positive normalcy; a normalcy in which we recognize the brotherhood of man on Monday as clearly as we acknowledge the Fatherhood of God on Sunday” (King, “Normalcy—Never Again,” p. 4). As the momentum builds, the draft reminds listeners about the work left to be done and encourages them that “freedom is in sight,” especially now that the movement has “annexed millions of allies whose skins are untouched with color but whose hearts have been touched with compassion and guilt (King, “Normalcy—Never Again,” p. 4). Although King later refined the writing and then, by this point, diverged from the written text when delivering the speech, his final climax built on this same uplifting tone.

King also drew on his own previous speeches and on historical sources in the speech that he finally delivered. He had, for example, earlier used a series of “I have a dream...” phrases with great impact in a speech in Detroit. Drawing on historical sources, the speech he delivered in Washington echoes the opening of the Gettysburg Address and names both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. By recalling these landmarks in American history, King was reminding his audience to bear the burden of social struggle until the national ideals declared so long ago had been met. He was not, however, supporting a violent social coup. In fact, King tells the audience, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence,” an admonition he repeats throughout his speech (“I Have a Dream,” p. 111).


One biographer cautions against focusing too much attention on King’s sources: “I will insist that we do King a disservice to evaluate his originality according to his use of written sources. He practiced the creativity of a preacher and a poet. He had. . . the gift of metaphor, and fretting about sources must not distract us from its appreciation. In King’s vision of the world, ordinary southern towns became theaters of divine revelation. . . . This is what the Kingdom of God will look like, he promised a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial: like white people and black people from Georgia sitting at table together and acting like kin’ (Lischer, p. 10)

King’s ideas and oratory were influenced over the years by the arguments and styles of other African Americans. Additional influences include the essayist Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), author of “Civil Disobedience” (also covered in Literature and Its Times), and the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), whose nonviolent philosophy deeply impressed King. In protest of the British rule of India, Gandhi led his people in two campaigns of civil disobedience (1919-22 and 1930) that employed nonviolent measures such as marches and hunger strikes. Introduced to Gandhi’s philosophy at Morehouse in 1950, King immediately purchased half a dozen books on the recently assassinated leader—Gandhi had been killed two years earlier by a Hindu fanatic who objected to the leader’s tolerance of Muslims.

King believed in the impact of a nonviolent movement and encouraged his own followers to fight with such dignity. In 1959 King traveled to India, where he encountered Gandhians of various backgrounds—“Muslims, mystics, rich industrialists, Communist governors, and cynical bureaucrats” (Branch, p. 252). Despite their differences, these men and women all embraced the peaceful philosophies of their former leader. King attempted to infuse their tactic of nonviolent protest into the civil rights struggle in the United States. Tragically, after advocating nonviolence for years, King, like Gandhi, met a violent death after being struck by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.

Reception of the speech

The crowd roared its approval in shouts and applause after King stepped down from the podium. Overcome with emotion, he heard SCLC colleague Ralph Abernathy express the view that the Holy Spirit had taken hold of King in his delivery of the speech. King himself took satisfaction in the thought that “millions of whites had heard his message for the first time, heard what he’d been trying to say since Montgomery” (Oates, p. 263). President Kennedy voiced his approval too. After hearing him speak, Kennedy said of King, “He’s damn good” (Kennedy in Branch, p. 886).

While many newspapers ran headlines such as “I Have a Dream’ Peroration by Dr. King Sums up a Day the Capital Will Remember” (New York Times in Branch, p. 886), others made no mention of King’s success. The Washington Post, for example, featured Randolph’s speech and made no mention of King’s. The black press, however, more than atoned for this oversight. Its papers praised King as an unequaled orator. Southern mainstream papers made mention of the speech too. Even Atlanta’s Daily World relaxed its prejudices and ran pictures of King on its front page.

Yet the South remained resistant to the advancement of civil rights for blacks. Before the march, President Kennedy had sent to Congress a civil rights bill that would prohibit segregation in public places. The march had been organized to press for the passage of this bill, but Congress failed to vote in favor of it that year, despite King’s stirring speech. Only after Kennedy was assassinated and President Lyndon Johnson promoted the bill would it finally pass into law as the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For More Information

Bennett, Lerone. What Manner of Man. Chicago: Johnson, 1976.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” In The Civil Rights Reader. Edited by Leon Friedman. New York: Walker, 1967.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Normalcy—Never Again.” Draft of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Address of August 28, 1963. Library and Archives, Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.

Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Meshack, B. A. Is the Baptist Church Relevant to the Black Community? San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1976.

Oates, Stephen B. The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper, 1982.

Sobel, Lester A. Civil Rights: 1960-66. New York: Facts on File, 1967.

About this article

“I Have a Dream”

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


“I Have a Dream”