On Monday, January 21, as Americans celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a familiar anaphora will ring out time and again: "I have a dream."
And in some ways, that's unfortunate.
The phrase is powerful and historically significant--no doubt about that. Yet its power and significance have been worn thin over the years through repeated use as a civil rights sound bite and a journalistic cliché.
The impassioned speech that Dr. King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 is one of the great orations of the past century. In addition to serving as a central text of the Civil Rights Movement, the "I Have a Dream" speech is a model of effective communication. For that reason, it remains one of the most frequently anthologized works in composition textbooks.
The final section of the speech, in which Dr. King articulates his dream of freedom and equality, is familiar to most Americans. (According to one study, 97 percent of American teenagers recognize the source of the refrain "I have a dream.") But the rest of the speech--an African-American jeremiad--deserves just as much attention for its social significance and rhetorical power: the opening allusions to Lincoln and to slavery, the telling analogy of a bad check, the conventional metaphors, the distinctive messages delivered to different segments of the audience, and the insistent call for action now:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
Clearly, without this demand for present action, the more famous "I have a dream" refrain would be little more than dreaminess.
So why not set aside a few minutes to read the complete "I Have a Dream" speech. Then read our article on Ten Things You Should Know About Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech.
Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)