Study Guide

I Have a Dream

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Have a Dream Introduction

Guys, you need to know this one. It's the dang "I Have A Dream" speech. It was given by a dude who not only nabbed the Nobel Peace Prize, but whose birthday is now a national holiday. It's probably the most oft-quoted speech in American history, and it's symbolic of the whole Civil Rights Movement.

And—oh yeah—it's an insanely powerful piece of oratory goodness that will give you a serious case of the inspiration-fueled goose bumps…if it doesn't lead directly to you breaking down in tears.

In fact, there's pretty much no even remotely respectful-enough way to intro this historically game-changing speech: you kind of just have to listen to it yourself.

Like, now. Do it.

There are other speeches that hold up just fine when you read 'em on the page. "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" doesn't really get better with JFK's heavily accented attempt at the German language. Obama's "State of the Union" still kicks plenty of butt when you don't listen to it in stereo. But listening to "I Have A Dream" adds to the overall experience in two major ways.

That Old-Timey Sound

The first thing it adds for the listener (that's you) is a feeling of being old. Even though 1963 isn't all that far in the past, the tinny AM radio-sound of the recorded speech makes it sound positively antique.

And this underlines that what MLK is saying was way ahead of his time.

In a time of segregated drinking fountains, schools, and restaurants, "I Have a Dream" was a futuristic bombshell. While much of America was stuck in the 1800s on the subject of race, Martin Luther King, Jr. was flying a starship.

The speech reinterpreted American history, from Revolution to the momentous end of slavery under President Lincoln. It essentially asked, "What gives?" Where was that promised "life, liberty, and happiness" for African Americans suffering the indignity of discrimination? Because—and it's important to remember this—the idea behind the Civil Rights Movement wasn't so much a revolution as a return to how things should have been in the first place. It suggested that the idea of equality shouldn't be a change, but a fulfillment of the original American Dream.

But King wasn't just ahead of his time…he was also (tragically) ahead of our time.

Because we're definitely not at the point of realizing his dream, even today. To name just one example (because to list all the examples would take about a thousand pages): MLK addresses police brutality against African Americans. The modern Black Lives Matters movement is still taking action for this very cause. What MLK was dreaming about more than half a century ago still hasn't come to pass.

That Amazing Preacher's Voice

The other reason you should use your ears and not just your eyes when absorbing the "I Have A Dream" speech is that MLK's oratory skills are, frankly, out of this world. This man's voice contains amazing amounts of power, sadness, hope and—yes—anger. We dare you to listen to this without getting choked up.

Of course, it would be possible for any droning Ferris Bueller-style high school teacher to deliver the "I Have a Dream" speech and have it be moving. MLK is, after all, calling for an end to legal segregation. (This goal was achieved with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, which outlawed segregation from the federal level, which: took you long enough, U.S. government.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is also outlining his dream: a world without racism. And he doesn't just tell us what his dream is, but also suggests what it might look like. His ideas were really about a unified society—one where even former racists participate in the group hug He takes the positive approach (everyone will love each other) as opposed to the negative angle (we're going to end this horrible thing once and for all).

This is massively affecting stuff, guys. You'd have to be made of stone to read it and stay totally dispassionate. But you'd have to be made of diamond to listen to this speech without shivering, because King's voice is so insanely filled with equal parts passion and empathy.

So get to listening, Shmoopers. This is seventeen minutes that will change your understanding of American history—and the American present—forever.

What is I Have a Dream About and Why Should I Care?

We get it: listening to most people's dreams is hideously boring. The last thing you want to do before having your Wheaties (or, if you're anything like us, your Big Gulp filled with coffee) is hear someone drone on about something like:

I was in my house—but it wasn't really my house, but it still was, you know?—and there was this horse but I knew it was really an elephant and then somehow I was suddenly in the swimming pool…

Yep: hearing someone talk about their dreams is the worst except when that person is MLK. When you're hearing about MLK's dream, you'll end up being moved, roused, impassioned…and angry.

Because although Martin Luther King was talking about his dream way back in 1963, it still hasn't been 100% realized.

And it's not like the guy was talking about the kind of things you usually hear about in dreams. He wasn't asking for wings, or a never-ending bag of Swedish fish, or a machine that simultaneously powers the entire U.S. electrical grid and makes calorie-free French fries.

He was asking for simple equality. And America still hasn't been able to deliver.

Racism continues to be a major issue in America. While the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s succeeded in ending many forms of state-sponsored segregation, economic inequality and persistent racism continue to create obstacles for African Americans today. (Source) Violence between the races lingers, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes in the open.

Sure, MLK stated that, "1963 is not an end, but a beginning" (7.3). But seriously, guys: it's been more than half a century. We really should be past the beginning stage by now.

But no. Just check out this (abridged) timeline of racism-related events since 1963:

  • 1976: An order to desegregate school buses leads to riots in Boston. A photographer captures a rioter beating an African American man with an American flag.
  • 1980: Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan taps into anti-black prejudice in order to secure votes for his campaign. Criticism of government welfare programs becomes linked with perceptions of African Americans as lazy. (Source
  • 1992: Four policemen in Los Angeles are caught on video beating an African American taxi driver named Rodney King. After they're acquitted of wrongdoing, race riots break out across the city.
  • 2005: Hurricane Katrina floods most of New Orleans, destroying homes and displacing thousands of people. African Americans living in the city's poorer quarters are trapped waiting, sometimes on scorching rooftops, for slow-arriving government assistance. 
  • 2015: South Carolina citizen, Coast Guard Veteran, and African American Walter Scott is fatally shot by a white police officer while running away from a police officer after a physical altercation. The officer is indicted for murder.

And, like we said, this is the very tippy-top of the iceberg when it comes to racism in America. Racism is pervasive, it's endemic, and it's very much a problem.

So, while we can 100% understand your reluctance to listen to anyone's dreams, you need to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s. And if you've already heard it, listen to it again. Because it is, if anything, even more relevant today.

I Have a Dream Resources

Websites

King Institute
Stanford University's King Institute compiles resources, primary texts, and an encyclopedia.

Nobel Page
The Nobel Prize website is a good source for accurate information on King's life and achievements.

Library of Congress Page
Compilation of primary and secondary sources on the history of civil rights.

Movie or TV Productions

Selma
The story of MLK's 1965 protest march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. King.

Citizen King
Three-part PBS Documentary debunks myths about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Boycott
Jeffrey Wright portrays MLK during the era of bus boycotts in the 1950s.

Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
An Academy-Award nominated short film about the day MLK was assassinated.

Articles and Interviews

Autobiography
Martin Luther King in his own words.

NPR Compilation
National Public Radio collects its coverage of King-related topics.

New York Times Compilation
An archive of MLK articles, then and now, from America's most prominent newspaper.

Video

"I Have a Dream" full video
Going strong at around one million views.

Quick Bio from Bio
Biography.com provides a quick overview of King's life.

Audio

Transcript of "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
One of the most influential documents from the Civil Rights Movement, with text and audio.

Audio and Text of MLK Speeches
A compilation of some of his most famous addresses, including "I Have a Dream"

Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial
Dr. King greets the crowd.

Picketers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
A view of the front of the crowd carrying signs toward the Lincoln Memorial.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez Playing at the March on Washington
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

MLK at the Podium
There were a lot of microphones.