|English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso "Yo tengo un sueño" durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
"I Have a Dream" is a public speech delivered by American activist Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963, in which he called for an end to racism in the United States. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the speech was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Beginning with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves in 1863, King examines that: "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free". At the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme of "I have a dream", possibly prompted by Mahalia Jackson's cry: "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" In this part of the speech, which most excited the listeners and has now become the most famous, King described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. The speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century by a 1999 poll of scholars of public address
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was partly intended to demonstrate mass support for the civil rights legislation proposed by President Kennedy in June. King and other leaders therefore agreed to keep their speeches calm, and to avoid provoking the civil disobedience which had become the hallmark of the civil rights movement. King originally designed his speech as a homage to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, timed to correspond with the 100-year centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Speech title and the writing process
King had been preaching about dreams since 1960, when he gave a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called "The Negro and the American Dream". This speech discusses the gap between the American dream and the American lived reality, saying that overt white supremacists have violated the dream, but also that "our federal government has also scarred the dream through its apathy and hypocrisy, its betrayal of the cause of justice". King suggests that "It may well be that the Negro is God’s instrument to save the soul of America." He had also delivered a "dream" speech in Detroit, in June 1963, when he marched on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Reverend C. L. Franklin, and had rehearsed other parts.
The March on Washington Speech, known as "I Have a Dream Speech", has been shown to have had several versions, written at several different times. It has no single version draft, but is an amalgamation of several drafts, and was originally called "Normalcy, Never Again." Little of this, and another "Normalcy Speech," ends up in the final draft. A draft of "Normalcy, Never Again" is housed in the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection of Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center and Morehouse College. Our focus on "I have a dream," comes through the speech's delivery. Toward the end of its delivery, noted African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started "preaching", punctuating his points with "I have a dream."
The speech was drafted with the assistance of Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones in Riverdale, New York City. Jones has said that "the logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us" and that "on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, [12 hours before the March] Martin still didn't know what he was going to say".
Leading up to the speech's rendition at the Great March on Washington, King had delivered its "I have a dream" refrains in his speech before 25,000 people in Detroit's Cobo Hall immediately after the 125,000-strong Great Walk to Freedom in Detroit, June 23, 1963. After the Washington, D.C. March, a recording of King's Cobo Hall speech was released by Detroit's Gordy records as an LP entitled "The Great March To Freedom."
Widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, King's speech invokes the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the United States Constitution. Early in his speech, King alludes to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying "Five score years ago..." King says in reference to the abolition of slavery articulated in the Emancipation Proclamation, "It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity." Anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences, is a rhetorical tool employed throughout the speech. An example of anaphora is found early as King urges his audience to seize the moment: "Now is the time..." is repeated four times in the sixth paragraph. The most widely cited example of anaphora is found in the often quoted phrase "I have a dream..." which is repeated eight times as King paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience. Other occasions when King used anaphora include "One hundred years later," "We can never be satisfied," "With this faith," "Let freedom ring," and "free at last." King was the sixteenth out of eighteen people to speak that day, according to the official program.
According to U.S. Representative John Lewis, who also spoke that day as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."
The ideas in the speech reflect King's social experiences of the mistreatment of blacks. The speech draws upon appeals to America's myths as a nation founded to provide freedom and justice to all people, and then reinforces and transcends those secular mythologies by placing them within a spiritual context by arguing that racial justice is also in accord with God's will. Thus, the rhetoric of the speech provides redemption to America for its racial sins. King describes the promises made by America as a "promissory note" on which America has defaulted. He says that "America has given the Negro people a bad check", but that "we've come to cash this check" by marching in Washington, D.C.
Similarities and allusions
King's speech uses words and ideas from his own speeches and other texts. He had spoken about dreams, quoted from "My Country 'Tis of Thee", and of course referred extensively to the Bible, for years. The idea of constitutional rights as an "unfulfilled promise" was suggested by Clarence Jones.
The closing passage from King's speech partially resembles Archibald Carey, Jr.'s address to the 1952 Republican National Convention: both speeches end with a recitation of the first verse of Samuel Francis Smith's popular patriotic hymn "America" (My Country ’Tis of Thee), and the speeches share the name of one of several mountains from which both exhort "let freedom ring".
King also is said to have built on Prathia Hall's speech at the site of a burned-down church in Terrell County, Georgia in September 1962, in which she used the repeated phrase "I have a dream".
It also alludes to Psalm 30:5 in the second stanza of the speech.
King also quotes from Isaiah 40:4-5—"I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted..." Additionally, King alludes to the opening lines of Shakespeare's "Richard III" ("Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer...") when he remarks, "this sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn..."
The speech was lauded in the days after the event, and was widely considered the high point of the March by contemporary observers. James Reston, writing for the New York Times, said that “Dr. King touched all the themes of the day, only better than anybody else. He was full of the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi, and the cadences of the Bible. He was both militant and sad, and he sent the crowd away feeling that the long journey had been worthwhile.” Reston also noted that the event "was better covered by television and the press than any event here since President Kennedy's inauguration," and opined that "it will be a long time before [Washington] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude." An article in the Boston Globe by Mary McGrory reported that King's speech "caught the mood" and "moved the crowd" of the day "as no other" speaker in the event. Marquis Childs of The Washington Post wrote that King's speech "rose above mere oratory". An article in the Los Angeles Times commented that the "matchless eloquence" displayed by King, "a supreme orator" of "a type so rare as almost to be forgotten in our age," put to shame the advocates of segregation by inspiring the "conscience of America" with the justice of the civil-rights cause.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also noticed the speech, which provoked them to expand their COINTELPRO operation against the SCLC, and to target King specifically as a major enemy of the United States. Two days after King delivered "I Have a Dream", Agent William C. Sullivan, the head of COINTELPRO, wrote a memo about King's growing influence:
In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.
The speech was a success for the Kennedy administration and for the liberal civil rights coalition that had planned it. It was considered a "triumph of managed protest", and not one arrest relating to the demonstration occurred. Kennedy had watched King's speech on TV and been very impressed. Afterwards, March leaders accepted an invitation to the White House to meet with President Kennedy. Kennedy felt the March bolstered the chances for his civil rights bill. Some of the more radical Black leaders who were present condemned the speech (along with the rest of the march) as too compromising. Malcolm X later wrote in his Autobiography: "Who ever heard of angry revolutionaries swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily pad pools, with gospels and guitars and 'I have a dream' speeches?"
The March on Washington put pressure on the Kennedy administration to advance its civil rights legislation in Congress. The diaries of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published posthumously in 2007, suggest that President Kennedy was concerned that if the march failed to attract large numbers of demonstrators, it might undermine his civil rights efforts.
In the wake of the speech and march, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech did not appear in writing until August 1983, when a transcript was published in the Washington Post.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the speech by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
In 2003, the National Park Service dedicated an inscribed marble pedestal to commemorate the location of King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Because King's speech was broadcast to a large radio and television audience, there was controversy about the copyright status of the speech. If the performance of the speech constituted "general publication", it would have entered the public domain due to King's failure to register the speech with the Registrar of Copyrights. If the performance only constituted "limited publication", however, King retained common law copyright. This led to a lawsuit, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., which established that the King estate does hold copyright over the speech and had standing to sue; the parties then settled. Unlicensed use of the speech or a part of it can still be lawful in some circumstances, especially in jurisdictions under doctrines such as fair use or fair dealing. Under the applicable copyright laws, the speech will remain under copyright in the United States until 70 years after King's death, thus until 2038.
Original copy of the speech
As Dr. King waved goodbye to the audience, he handed George Raveling the original typewritten "I Have a Dream" speech. Raveling, now a retired basketball coach, was on the podium with Dr. King at that moment. Raveling still has custody of the original copy..