Martin Luther King, Jnr. made his famous speech on August 28th 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous speech on August 28th 1963

On August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC. The speech was a call for racial equality across the United States.

Background

King was arrested in his earlier protests
King was arrested in his earlier protests

Civil rights were (and continue to be) a major issue in America, not only for black Americans but several other ethnic groups. Slavery had only been outlawed a hundred years earlier (1863) and for many there remained maltreatment, inequality and even brutality within society. The southern states had a particularly poor reputation in how black people were treated, with beatings and lynchings still occurring. In the search for change there was divided opinion as to whether peaceful protest or civil disobedience was the best direction to achieve results.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an advocate of peaceful but strong protest. A baptist preacher in a church in Montgomery, Alabama, he had been a key figure in the Montgomery bus boycott. Instigated by two cases of black women being arrested for refusing to give up their seats on public buses (the first was Claudette Colvin, the second Rosa Parks). The boycott lasted over a year, made King and Parks household names, and is seen as a major moment in civil rights activism.

In 1957 King was elected the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group of black church leaders promoting nonviolent civil rights protest. They targeted Jim Crow laws, the laws in southern states that enforced segregation of races. King lead and participated in numerous events across a variety of states in the following years.

March on Washington

The March on Washington gathered around a quarter of a million people
The March on Washington gathered around a quarter of a million people

In August 1963, the SCLC was one of the main groups involved in organising an event formally called ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’. The idea was for a mass protest to march through America’s capital on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, although initially it did not have unanimous support due to some of the participants. The event did, however, have the attention of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a supporter of King’s cause but had originally been against the march, believing it would make people reject civil rights legislation. However, when he saw the march was going ahead, he supported it, inviting local Washington church leaders and the head of the union for automobile workers to help organise large numbers.

Approximately a quarter of a million people attended the March on Washington (as it is now commonly called), with around 75% of the audience black Americans. King, the best known voice in the civil rights movement, was the main speaker,

The Speech

King’s main speech was written before the event and was styled to echo Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. He also alluded to many of America’s most famous documents, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution. However, it was a section at the end, believed to be ad-libbed, that was to become the most famous segment. A shout from the crowd, from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, said ‘tell them about the dream, Martin’. After a pause, he began the next section with the words ‘I have a dream’, a line he then repeated and emphasised before each subsequent portion.

The entire speech lasted for 17 minutes.

Aftermath

Martin Luther King is seen as one of America's great civil rights figures
Martin Luther King is seen as one of America’s great civil rights figures

The speech was a success and helped push the Kennedy administration towards making political change. It also made King one of the star speakers in America. He was named Time Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in both 1963 and 1964, and became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 1964.

‘I Have a Dream’ has since been named the greatest American speech of the 20th century.

King continued to be involved in civil rights campaigns and marches until he was assassinated in 1968 in Tennessee.

Section of the Speech

The following is the last part of the speech:

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

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.

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.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners 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.

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.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. 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.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, 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!”