I have a dream by Martin Luther King Jr.

‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King Jr. is a public speech the civil rights activist delivered on August 28th, 1963. In it, he called for an end to racism in the United States and all its related policies. 

The ‘I have a dream’ speech was delivered to 250,000 supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Today, the ‘I have a dream’ speech is acknowledged as one of the defining and shining moments of the Civil Rights movement and as a masterpiece of public speaking. It is constantly quoted and used as continual inspiration as the fight for equal rights continues in the United States and around the world. 

I have a dream by Martin Luther King Jr.


Summary 

‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King Jr. is a powerful rhetorical call for equal rights for all American people regardless of their race. It is a continual source of inspiration for those fighting to continue what the Civil Rights movement began.

In the first lines of this famed speech, King discusses the Emancipation Proclamation. That is the speech that freed the slaves in 1863, one hundred years in the past. Now, he stated, still, “the Negro is…not free.” He also references the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, reminding all those listening that America is supposed to be the land of the free. But, in American today, freedom hasn’t been achieved. The phrase “I have a dream” is used numerous times throughout the piece. He says that the United States needs to make immediate changes, or the protests will only heighten. He also says that the Black community will never be satisfied until they are granted full and equal rights with white Americans. 

You can watch the full speech here.


Themes

Throughout this piece, King engages with themes of freedom, justice, and the future. He acknowledges the past and present as a way of alluding to the promise of the future. His determination that no one rest until all people are truly equal comes through in his calls for justice and freedom. 


Structure and Form

‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King Jr. is an incredibly important text to study for those interested in understanding the Civil Rights movement and this specific pivotal moment. It was delivered in around seventeen minutes, using numerous rhetorical devices that are noted below. King uses repetition, seen through instances of anaphora and epistrophe, to drive home his poems. In this analysis, the speech has been separated into six sections. These are not sections created or noted by King. Instead, they’re used in this analysis to make the poem easier to analyze and understand. 

Literary and Rhetorical Devices 

Throughout the speech, King uses numerous literary and rhetorical devices in order to deliver the most effective speech possible. For example: 

  • Ethos: used in an argument by appealing to the audience through the speaker’s credibility. King, as a Black man living in the United States, and working within the Civil Rights Movement, is in an ideal position in order to speak about what the contemporary American experience is like. King also uses the other modes of persuasion, logos, and pathos.
  • Anaphora: the use of the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines, in succession. Throughout the speech, King repeats “I have a dream” eight times, successively, at the beginning of lines. “One hundred years later” is another example, appearing at the beginning of numerous phrases early on in the speech. “Now is the time,” “Go back to,” “With this faith,” and “We can never (or cannot) be satisfied” are all other phrases that begin multiple lines.
  • Allusion: throughout this piece, King alludes to prior American history, important political moments, and contemporary events. The latter includes protests that he was famously a part of. He uses phrases like “Five score years ago” as a reference to the Gettysburg Address and “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is an allusion to the Lincoln Memorial. There are also biblical allusions scattered throughout the speech. Such as “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity” which comes from Psalms 30:5
  • Repetition: in addition to examples of anaphora, there are other kinds of repetition in King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. For example, repeated phrases, references, and calls to action. He also repeats common themes. These include: freedom, justice, and the power of dreams. 
  • Imagery: another powerful rhetorical and literary device. It occurs when the speaker uses phrases that appeal to and trigger the listener’s senses. For example, “slums and ghettos of our northern cities,” a phrase that also alludes to the contemporary moment King is living through. 
  • Metaphor: comparison between two seemingly dissimilar things that do not use “like” or “as.” For example, in the second paragraph of the speech, King uses the phrase “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” Here, he’s connecting Black American’s social and political restrictions and the racisms that still plagues the country to a “long night of captivity.” When freedom is truly given to all people it will be a “joyous daybreak” and end to that night.
    Another example can be found in paragraph 19, in which he uses the phrase “sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” Here, oppression is compared to “heat” and freedom and justice to “an oasis.” He’s using imagery in this metaphor to evoke the beauty of one state of being and the pain or another.
  • Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, King uses “trials and tribulations,” “dark and desolate,” “sweltering summer,” and “marvelous new militancy.”  


Famous Quotes from the I have a dream speech

Below, readers can find a few of the most famous quotes from this speech.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In this quote, King is starting the most famous section of his speech in which he uses “I have a dream” at the start of several lines. He is looking into the future and envisioning a life for his children that’s different than his own.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.

Here, King acknowledges that while there is power in the numbers they have, it is important that the Black community does not walk alone. There are people of all races in the audience, men and women, who support their movement. It’s crucial that they accept their support and do not allow bitterness to drive them.

When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that 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 in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

These are the final lines of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. In this paragraph, King uses anaphora to emphasize the way that freedom is going to travel through the country, bringing men and women together. All races and religions will one day join hands and be able to sing out “Free at last!”

We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This line is King’s answer to the question of “When will you be satisfied?” That is, when will the Civil Rights movement be content with the freedoms it gained the Black community. His answer is eloquently phrased and spans more than just this one line.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Here, King brings in one of the running metaphors that can be found in the speech. That is, the use of the sun as an image of hope and the future, as well as darkness as one of oppression and the past.

Detailed Analysis 

Part I

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

[…]

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The first lines of the speech contain King’s initial address to the audience, numerous metaphors, allusions, and examples of repetition that bring in the most important themes of the speech, justice, and freedom. He speaks about the “Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and the “architects of our republic” thought when they wrote them. They promised that “all men” were “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

In this line, it’s interesting to note the moment at which King pauses and says, “all men, yes, black men as well as white men,” in order to confirm before anyone has a chance to second guess him. These political documents gave men of all color the same rights. This is a great example of a more colloquial moment in the speech.  There is a great example of a metaphor in these lines at the end of this section. It reads: “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”’ 

Part II 

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

[…]

will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

In this section of the speech, King uses some of the same examples of literary devices seen above. This includes anaphora. It is seen through the use of “Now is the time” in paragraph three. The repetition of this phrase is a call to action, inspiring the audience and reminding anyone listening that “Now is the time” that the past ends and that a new future starts. The image of “heat” comes into play with King using phrases like “This sweltering summer.” Other natural images are also used, like “blow off steam,” “whirlwinds,” and “bright day.” These all allude to what the next stage in American justice and freedom is going to look like. 

Part III

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

[…]

There are those who are asking the devotees of Civil Rights, “When will you be satisfied?”

In the next lines of the speech, he reminds those listening, his “people,” that they must stay on the correct path as they seek justice. It’s important that they do not “drink…from the cup of bitterness and hatred” and instead “conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” These beautiful lines bring in the fact that there are many who support King’s desire for a new world of freedom, black and white. Knowing how hard this fight is going to be, it’s important that “We cannot walk alone,” King says. One of the most famous quotes from the speech follows. 

Part IV

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality; we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities; we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one; 

[…]

the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

The next lines are some of the most commonly quoted for the speech. King asks a question that he proceeds to answer. When will they be satisfied? He determines that they won’t be satisfied as long as “the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and “we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.” He brings in several more phrases that lay out the goals of his speech and the entire Civil Rights movement. In the brighter future, he imagines, these are things that are no longer going to be a concern.

In another powerful part of the speech, King tells those listening to go home and not “wallow in the valley of despair.” Instead, “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” He tells them to “Go” back to their respective states, Georgia, South Carolina, etc.

Part V 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

[…]

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother-hood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day.

The next section contains the repetitions of “I have a dream,” truly the most famous section of the speech. King emphasizes that he has a “dream” that the future is going to be different and that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” These images of hope are juxtaposed with the difficulty of the present moment. For example, with this description of the Governor of Alabama and others in the state: “with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.” 

Part VI 

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of the pilgrim’s pride,

[…] 

we will be able to speed up that 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 in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

In the final lines of the speech, King says that today is the day when “all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning” when they sing the lines of the national anthem. He repeats “Let freedom ring” in reference to various places around the country, uniting those listening in a common goal and reminding the audience of his desire to have all of God’s children stand and “join hands and sing.” The final line comes from “the old Negro spiritual” that encompasses the passion of the Civil Rights movement: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” 

FAQs

When was the ‘I have a dream’ speech given?

On August 28th, 1963. It was delivered to 250,000 supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Why is the ‘I have a dream’ speech important?

It brought the Civil Rights movement into the public spotlight and made King a public figure. It may have hastened the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

Why did Martin Luther King Jr. write the ‘I have a dream’ speech?

He wrote and delivered the speech in order to call for an end to social and economic racism in the United States.

What is the main message of the ‘I have a dream’ speech?

King’s main message is that all people are created equal and that although they aren’t treated as such in the United States at the moment, it’s important that everyone continue working towards that goal.

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

King was a Baptist minister and social rights activist. He was a leader of the Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s in the United States. He organized the March on Washington in 1963.

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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