Martin Luther King’s Most Significant Speech: I Have A Dream

Martin Luther King’s I have A Dream Speech was undoubtedly his best known speech.  More than just a popular address, this speech would resonate in the hearts and minds of Americans for forever. This speech has attained iconic status.

The year 1963 was the centennial of the signing of the emancipation proclamation. It was a momentous year for the civil Rights movement. Yet, the country seemingly was going in reverse; conditions for African Americans were getting worse. In Alabama, the police under segregationist Bill “Bull” Connor, turned fire hoses and police dogs on children and demonstrators. Medgar Evers, thirty-seven year old NAACP Field Secretary, was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi.  Civil disturbance occurred throughout the summer. the nation was on the brink of racial civil war. A Philip Randolph called for and was the driving force behind the landmark March on Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.  By 1963, All in all, some 250,000 Americans, predominantly African Americans, traveling on 2,000 “freedom buses” and 30 “freedom trains-came from all corners of the country to participate, making the march the largest demonstration of its kind in the history of the United States.  This was the backdrop for the Martin Luther King’s historic I Have A Dream speech.

As former president of the National Council of Negro Women, Dorothy I. height, observes, King’s I Have A Dream speech was a “riveting sermon that struck the conscience of America, taking its place as one of the most famous speeches in human history.” The speech was a “cascading vision, rich with historical resonance and contemporary significance, whose cumulative effect remains astounding and moving a half century later.

As Eric Sundquist points out  in his work, King’s Dream,  King unleashed his entire repertory: the quotation from the Declaration of Independence, the challenge to African Americans and whites alike, to live as brothers and sisters; the “hallmark metaphors in which the oppressive weight of injustice, generation after generation, comes palpably alive; the hope that one’s character, not the color of one’s skin, shall be the basis of judgment and reward; the attack on states’ rights framed in the daring terms of black and white children holding hands; the biblical injunction, here from the prophet Isaiah, to realize justice not only in God’s heaven but on god’s earth.

What is little known about the I Have A Dream speech is that King departed from his prepared text and spoke from his heart two-thirds into his speech. Famed singer, Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting behind King, prompted him to proclaim his dream for the nation. She shouted, ‘tell ‘em them about the dream Martin!” And so with the spoken words, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” King delivered a speech elegantly structured, commanding in tone, and altogether more profound than anything heard on American soil in nearly a century. In the midst of speaking, King rewrote his speech and created a new national scripture, issuing a second Emancipation Proclamation.

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