Sunday, August 5, 2012

"I Have a Dream" speech

"I Have a Dream" speech

At Issue
The spring and summer of 1963 proved to be one of the most important times of the Civil Rights movement.
On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated; white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith would not be found guilty of his murder for nearly thirty years. In April, 1963, protest against discrimination in the

downtown department stores of Birmingham, Alabama, culminated in protests on April 4. Martin Luther
King, Jr.’s arrest during these demonstrations and the media coverage of police violence against the
demonstrators catapulted both the movement and King, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC), into the national spotlight to an even greater degree than before. The boycotts and mass
marches eventually provided sufficient pressure that white leaders promised to desegregate the stores’
facilities, hire African Americans to work in the stores, and establish a biracial committee for ongoing talks
concerning racial problems.
These gains were achieved at a price, however: King was jailed briefly; police brutality occurred against
protesters; and arrested protesters filled Birmingham’s jails. Nevertheless, the filled jails negatively affected
the capacity of police to arrest and hold demonstrators, which was exactly what King and other civil rights
leaders had hoped; news coverage of police brutality outraged many citizens; and, while jailed, King wrote his
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a document that delineated the need for and goals of the direct action
campaigns of the Civil Rights movement. The acclaim that met this document foreshadowed the reaction to
his speech at the March on Washington two months later.
March on Washington
The purpose of the March on Washington (sometimes called the Poor People’s March) was not merely to
make an emotional plea on behalf of African Americans; its primary purpose was to expose the American
public to the economic basis of racial inequality. Thus, the focus of the march was the need to increase jobs
and economic opportunities for African Americans, in order for them to realize racial equality. These
especially were the goals of the leaders of the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, labor leader and
organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, one of the
earliest planners of the event. In fact, the full title of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and
Freedom.” The march, therefore, had a set of important goals: more jobs, a higher minimum wage, support
for President John F. Kennedy’s antidiscrimination legislation, and arousing the conscience of the United
States to the plight of African Americans. King’s speech was especially important on this last point, for the
“I Have a Dream” section of the speech was an eloquent plea for a society based on racial harmony.
Nevertheless, while King’s speech is best remembered for his vision of racial equality, its true import lies in
the fact that the renown accorded the speech helped advance the multifaceted goals of the march, thus helping
to pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"I Have a Dream" speech 1
King’s Vision
The passage in which King reiterates “I have a dream” should be understood in the overall context of the talk.
Although King started by reading from his prepared text, he disregarded this text about halfway through the
speech and incorporated a theme he had used in some previous speeches: “I have a dream.” This theme
introduced into the speech two of the main tenets of the SCLC: interracial cooperation and social equality.
King’s eloquent vision of a future without racial divisions captured the emotions of many viewers and, later,
readers of the speech. In fact, the emotional power of that section of King’s remarks sometimes blurs the
memory of other, equally important aspects of his speech.
King’s speech has become widely known as a masterpiece of rhetoric and argumentation. One rhetorical
device that King used to great effect is repetition. The most obvious example is the repetition of the phrase “I
have a dream” to detail different aspects of King’s vision of racial harmony, but there are other, equally
important examples. In the opening section of the speech, King reiterated the phrase “one hundred years
later” to emphasize that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation (issued in 1863), African
Americans still had not achieved equality. Immediately after the “I have a dream” section, King repeated the
phrase that it is “with this faith” in his dream that he and other people could hope to transform American
society. These examples demonstrate King’s consciousness of the use of rhetoric to produce emotional
impact.
Perhaps one of the most important rhetorical strategies of King’s speech is his reference to the principles
voiced by the Founding Fathers in his appeal for racial equality. This strategy was especially important in
light of the fact that the government (including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice
Department) was concerned that the Civil Rights movement might discredit the United States abroad. Hence,
it was perceptive of King to imply in the speech that he was not undermining the United States but asking the
country to do justice to the principles that were asserted to be the bedrock of the U.S. political and societal
character. King stated, for example, that his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” and that he
dreamed of a day when Americans “will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet
land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” King then immediately used the words of that song to delineate the different
areas of the country where he hoped the United States would soon “let freedom ring” for all its citizens. He
referred to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as being a “promissory note” to all citizens,
which those at the march now were claiming as their inheritance. The speech gained power from King’s
stressing that he was asking the United States to live up to its principles and thus to fulfill the greatness of its
pronounced creed.
King’s speech became not only one of the most publicized events of the Civil Rights movement but also one
of the most highly regarded speeches in U.S. history. Although much of the acclaim rests on the emotionally
powerful “I have a dream” section of the speech, the entire speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric and argument.
One of the most essential aspects of the speech was at the end, when King stated that on the day “when we let
freedom ring” the United States will only be speeding up the day—not arriving at it—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 in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free
at last!’” This stands as the lingering, haunting challenge of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on
Washington.
Core Resources
James Baldwin’s “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” in The Price of the Ticket (New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 1985) offers a detailed consideration of the difficulties facing King. David J. Garrow’s
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York:
King’s Vision 2
Vintage Books, 1986) examines the strategies of civil rights protests and conflicts between various civil rights
groups. Penelope McPhee and Flip Schulke’s King Remembered (New York: Pocket Books, 1986) ia s
concise introductory biography of King that focuses on his philosophy as a leader of a nonviolent movement.