Words of a Dreamer
It was one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Delivered at the right time, in the right place, by the right person. It was sunny and hot 56 years ago, on August 28, 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people, and the world, while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. But it would mark the beginning of dramatic change and upheaval in American society. Just over two weeks after the speech, members of the Klu Klux Klan would bomb the black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. Less than three months later, President Kennedy would be assassinated. Racial unrest would rage across the country for years, burning cities and killing many. Less than five years later, King himself would be a victim of violence that he spent his life preaching against.
King’s greatest weapons to fight injustice were non-violent protests and marches, and the power of his words. An examination of the speech shows how a master storyteller can show the history of injustice and what society must do to correct it. His use of vivid imagery and a repetitious cadence paints a picture we can all see. King starts by saying blacks are not free even a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He said, “...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...” Here there are obvious references to the chains of slavery and living in slave shacks on lavish plantations.
King goes on to say African Americans are owed a debt and they have come to collect. He says the writers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were... “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” He contends... “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds...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.” Everyone can relate to being cheated out money they believe they deserve.
But the speech wasn’t just about history. It was about “the fierce urgency of now.” King was saying African Americans have waited long enough. “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” He was using the heat of the day that his audience was feeling at that moment to push them ahead to a cooler and exciting future. The foundation of King’s message was always non-violence. He addressed that directly, “...we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred...We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.” King was getting his message across by using our physical senses to understand. He coupled non-violence with the role of white people in the struggle for civil rights. “The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people. For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presences here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up in our destiny.” We are all in this together. It can’t be us against them.
King goes on to say that people can’t be satisfied as long as they are the victims of police brutality, can’t stay in hotels and motels and have their children... “stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, “For Whites Only.” He urges people to go back to their homes in the south and “the slums and ghettoes of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” Notice he said, “will be changed”. It’s a call to action.
Throughout the speech, King repeats rallying phrases to push the narrative forward. “Now is the time to make real promises of democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” The imagery is striking. Then there are the reasons for the fight. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality...we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from the smaller ghetto to the larger one...and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He uses the image of water as a cleansing baptism of a new beginning.
Of course, the rallying phrase that defines the speech is “I have a dream.” He introduces it gradually. “...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.” He makes the point that it’s not only a dream for African Americans, but all Americans. It’s a message of inclusion. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He uses the words of Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, that discrimination cannot stand if we believe what the nation was founded on. He then brings it down to the person to person level, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and 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 oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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!” He calls for the oppressed and the oppressor to sit at the intimate setting of a table to understand each other. He says it can be done in the racial caldron of even the worst place. And, finally he makes it deeply personal. We have to do it for our children.
King then sums up the dream by returning to the all-inclusive big picture. “And when this happens, and 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 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 was more than a speech about civil rights. This was about the soul of America. This was the use of the spoken word to describe in graphic and lyrical terms the divide in American society that was tearing us apart and a call to fix it. It echoes down through the decades and tells us we can still learn from the words of a dreamer.