Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" Speech
"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 came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."- Martin Luther King, Jr. With these words, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began what would become his most famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Although King spoke at length about the need for proactive legislation, access to education, income equality, police brutality, and reparations, most Americans remember only his last few lines of hopeful optimism. As a result, his speech is frequently referred to as the “I Have a Dream” speech in ways that ignore the nightmare of racial injustice that was the main subject of his address. King was the last of six keynote addresses during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, more commonly referred to as the March on Washington. Links to his speech and others, along with a few books about King's life and the civil rights movement are provided below.
Backstory and Context
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning for the march in December 1962. Randolph was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, the American labor movement, and the socialist political party. Before entering the realm of politics, Randolph was an actor who was instrumental in helping form the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. Rustin was supported civil rights, socialism, and gay rights. An activist for most of his life and was exceptionally well educated. His extensive academic training included completing an activist training program led by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The AFSC is an organization dedicated to promoting peace and social justice around the world and founded by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
The March on Washington was intended to challenge President Kennedy's lukewarm support of civil rights legislation. The march is often credited with helping promote the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed the Senate only after several Southern legislators attempted to filibuster the bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964. This law made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The day included six speeches by leaders of the largest civil rights organizations. King's speech drew attention to the continued injustices faced by African Americans in the form of police brutality, economic inequality, and the failure of many states to protect the voting rights of African American citizens. Future congressman John Lewis, the leader of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee delivered an even stronger indictment of the status quo even after leaders of the event coerced him into moderating the tone of the speech and removing some of his calls for action. The original draft of Lewis' speech is linked below.
Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2000.
Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.