I Have a Dream

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"I Have a Dream"


By: Martin Luther King, Jr

Date: August 28, 1963

Source: King, Jr. Martin Luther. "I Have a Dream." Speech delivered in Washington, D.C. Available from: Avalon Project of Yale Law School. 〈http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/treatise/king/ mlk01.htm〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).

About the Author: Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader who, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, spearheaded the struggle for racial equality throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.


Martin Luther King, Jr. helped revolutionize race relations in the United States. He was an eloquent and popular voice of the African American civil rights movement from the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956 to his murder in 1968. No one else had King's ability to arouse his listeners to indignation against injustice, to persuade them to march and demonstrate at the risk of beatings, and to inspire faith in the triumph of love over hate.

King expressed a philosophy that suited the civil rights movement of the late fifties and early 1960s. He rejected the idea that progress could come through negotiations or favors or the use of courts. He urged direct action by masses of people. Although he recognized that marches and demonstrations would likely result in white-directed violence, King insisted that the protesters be nonviolent. He had been heavily influenced by Henry David Thoreau's willingness to disobey the law to support a moral principle and Mohandas Gandhi's idea that the force of truth, acted out in massive disobedience, could win against the force of arms.

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to present Congress with a comprehensive civil rights bill. The legislation was intended to ban segregation in all public facilities, to promote black employment, and to end the disfran-chisement of black would-be voters. In a dramatic expression of public support for the bill, King led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, King addressed an audience of more than 250,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His "I Have a Dream" speech has been called the most powerful and important address delivered by a civil rights leader in the twentieth century. In it, he referenced the traditional symbols of American identity: patriotism, religious conviction, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, after Kennedy's assassination. In 1967, King went to Memphis, Tennessee to aid striking sanitation workers, most of whom were black, in their struggle for better wages and working conditions. While there, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray.


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Civil rights change was easy to legislate but very difficult to effect. Even after the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, racism and inequality remained. In a memorial to King, a Civil Rights Bill passed in 1968 to outlaw housing discrimination but it lacked adequate enforcement mechanisms and could accomplish little. Frustration built up within the African American community at the glacial pace of change.

By the mid-1960s, many African Americans within the civil rights movement had grown tired of turning the other cheek to abuse. The nonviolent phase of the movement gradually began to collapse as Black Power rose. This radical strain of protest represented an explicit challenge to the nonviolent tactics and integrationist objectives of King. While King embraced Black Power's emphasis on racial pride, he dismissed it as a philosophy intent on destruction. His anger was directed particularly at Black Power's celebration of violence. He argued that by promoting urban race riots as legitimate acts of protest, Black Power leaders created political ammunition for white conservatives and a self-destructive mentality among African Americans. The self-destruction identified by King continues at the millennium to cause problems for some African Americans, especially those in the inner cities.

Despite the setbacks that he faced in his later years, King's greatness as a civil rights leader is incontestable. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the youngest person to date to do so. Crucially, King gave the civil rights movement a sense of historical urgency. He led by example in public acts of confrontation against the forces of white racism and forced an often reluctant federal government to accelerate the process of civil rights reform.



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

Drew D. Hansen. The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation. New York: Ecco, 2003.

Stephen Oates. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1985.

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I Have a Dream

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