Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was delivered to a crowd of 200’000 civil rights activists and demonstrators gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on the 28th August 1963. The meeting sought to end the racial and economic injustices King described as ‘the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination’ and address widespread poverty at a time of national prosperity. It marked a period characterised by an ‘unprecedented degree of black-white co-operation’ and demonstrated increased support for reform. King was the last speaker at the end of a long, hot day in the ‘sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent’ and closed the largest civil protest in American history, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Before the stone temple of Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator, King called for the fulfilment of the promises of freedom for ‘all men’ laid down by the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. On the steps of the nation’s capital, under the gaze of a global audience, King demanded that America repaid the nation’s debt to African Americans. The connection between wealth and poverty provides one of the speech’s most memorable passages in which King refers to the ‘bad check’ America has given the Negro, ‘a check which has come back marked insufficient funds’. King spoke of an inextricable link between the freedom and destiny of white and black Americans, but in comparing freedom to a ‘promissory note’ he demonstrated how white justification of slavery and segregation was inextricably linked to economics.
King’s key message, like the structure of the speech is simple; ‘all men are created equal’. At a time of inequality, he inspired courage to face an uncertain future with dignity rather than violence. To him, 1963 marked ‘not an end, but a beginning’ of increased demonstrations of civil disobedience and non-violence which would bring justice ‘for all God’s children’. King’s dream lay in the future and he urged those present with passion and inspirational conviction, to ‘go back to the slums and ghettos’, to endure and resist injustice ‘knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed’. The repetition of words and phrases such as ‘we’, ‘Negro’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘One hundred years’, ‘We can never be satisfied’ and ‘I have a dream’ emphasised King’s message and reveal the thematic paragraphing underpinning his argument. Frequent examples of metaphorical opposition such as ‘the long night of their captivity’ and ‘the bright day of justice’ provoke instinctive reactions rather than rational responses and heighten the sense of immediacy suggested by the repetition of ‘now’.
The speech can be divided into two parts; the first draws upon Lincoln’s symbolic presence and introduces King’s argument through his portrait of an American nightmare; the second looks to the future and a vision of racial harmony to restore the American Dream. Comprising extracts of previous sermons and Biblical references which rendered the American government answerable to God for the Negro’s plight, the speech underwent countless revisions until the finalised transcript was released to the media. Even so, in response to the atmosphere and his audience during the latter part of his oration, King deviated from the transcript and began improvising a peoration which ‘raised familiar platitudes from cliché to commandment’ . Clearly King recognised the significance of the moment in his opening remarks to the crowd by identifying himself as one of them; a witness to the historic moment when American civil rights emerged blinking ‘from the desolate valley of segregation’ and took the first steps along ‘the sunlit path of racial justice’.