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Ten Things You Should Know About Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech

"So often . . . I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare"


Ten Things You Should Know About Dr. King's

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

In a recent survey of leading scholars of American public address, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was rated as the most significant American political speech of the 20th century.

In addition to serving as a central text of the Civil Rights Movement, King's impassioned address, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, is a model of effective communication. For that reason, it remains one of the most frequently anthologized works in composition textbooks (as well as one of the most popular texts on this website).

But besides the all-too-familiar "I have a dream" refrain (which has been reprinted on merchandise ranging from boxer shorts to pet apparel), how much do we know about this landmark speech?

Not enough, I decided, and so I recently spent some time with a few historians and rhetoricians to learn more. (At the end of this article you'll find a list of works consulted.)

  1. Assisted by two of his advisers, Clarence Jones and Stanley Levison, King wrote several drafts of the speech in the days leading up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (One early draft, titled "Normalcy, Never Again," is now housed at Morehouse College, King's alma mater.) The "I have a dream" refrain appeared in none of these drafts.

  2. As David Howard-Pitney has shown, King's speech employs the rhetoric of the African-American jeremiad and follows its conventional structure: "Beginning the speech by recalling the hallowed national past, then dwelling on the urgent challenge of the present, King turned visionary at the end, describing in unforgettable language and apocalyptic imagery his dream of America's future" (The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, 2005).

  3. From the opening echo of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in the exordium, King's speech is rich in historical and biblical allusions. These include references to (and often direct quotations from) the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. Constitution, and the Old Testament prophets Amos ("We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters . . .") and Isaiah ("I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted . . .").

  4. Each of the three main sections of the speech balances militancy ("the fierce urgency of now") with moderation ("meeting physical force with soul force"), and on several occasions King identifies and directly appeals to different segments of his audience.

  5. King's first major departure from his prepared text came with the charge to "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed." According to Eric Sundquist in King's Dream (2009), that call to action was an extemporaneous revision of these lines:
    And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. Let us go back with all the strength we can muster to get strong civil rights legislation in this session of Congress. Let us go down from this place to ascend other peaks of purpose. Let us descend from this mountaintop to climb other hills of hope.
  6. Several historians have reported that at one point King's close friend Mahalia Jackson either "shouted" or "whispered," "Tell them about the dream, Martin." Within a few minutes, King abandoned his prepared text and launched into the now-famous peroration. Later he said, "I'd used it many times before, that thing about 'I have a dream,' and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don't know, I hadn't thought about it before the speech."

  7. King had given one version of "that thing about 'I have a dream'" at a rally in Detroit on June 23, 1963. Here's how that speech concluded:
    I have a dream this afternoon.

    I have a dream that one day "every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

    I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day. And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!"

  8. Though on the page the "I have a dream" refrain appears to be a classic example of anaphora (repetition at the beginning of successive clauses), in his delivery King shifted the emphasis to the end of each line, creating the effect of epistrophe (or epiphora). As Drew Hansen notes, "The unexpected placing of the pauses gave these lines a sense of propulsion, which added to the momentum of the set piece" (The Dream, 2003).

  9. After Malcom X heard the speech, he said, "You know, this dream of King's is going to be a nightmare before it's over." Several times over the next few years King himself expressed similar sentiments, as in these remarks following a tour of Chicago's slums in July 1965:
    So often in these past two years I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare. . . . I have felt my dream falter as I have traveled through the rat-infested slums of our big city ghettos and watched our jobless and hopeless poor sweltering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.
  10. The FBI responded to King's "powerful demagogic speech" with this disturbing report: "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."

To learn more about Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, pick up at least one of these fine books from your library:

  • David Bobbitt, The Rhetoric of Redemption. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
  • Drew D. Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. HarperCollins, 2003.
  • David Howard-Pitney, The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, rev. ed. Temple University Press, 2005.
  • Nathan W. Schlueter, One Dream or Two? Lexington Books, 2002.
  • Eric J. Sundquist, King's Dream. Caravan, 2009.

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