Study Guide

I Have a Dream Analysis

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

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<ul data-content-type="accordion" data-appearance="default" data-element="main" style=""><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="rhetoric" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Rhetoric</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>Pathos </h3><p>The 1963 march on Washington was the biggest rally of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew he couldn't accomplish his goals without getting everybody possible involved&mdash;African Americans, white people, politicians, students, adults, etc. This is the job of a leader: to inspire. And, often, the best way to inspire people is by playing to emotion.</p><p>Like a preacher, MLK aims for an emotional spirituality. One of his favorite tools for this is metaphor: "Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation" (6.4). The imagery here references the idea of "the valley of death," a motif in Christianity. </p><p>The most famous line of the speech plays to emotion by making a plea for children. </p><blockquote><p>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. (15.1)</p></blockquote><p>The line places responsibility on activists, not to bring about change only for themselves, but so their children can have a better life than them. That's another facet of the American Dream. Nothing gets folks' tears running like references to their kids, their grandmas, or their cars. </p><p>Note that this speech doesn't include much specific evidence, statistics, or even anecdotes about racism. Playing to emotion, the speech allows the audience to fill in the blanks with stuff they already know about: segregation, Jim Crow laws, injustice, police brutality, etc. Referencing these sensitive points gets the audience emotionally involved, without dragging it out for too long. </p><p>MLK also gets into some fist-pumping rhetoric, repeating the word "now" (6.1-6) to describe the urgency of the African American situation. Nothing gets adrenaline going like a sense of urgency. The "I have a dream" section of "I Have a Dream" is also a tearjerker. </p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="structure" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Structure</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h4>Impromptu Sermon </h4><p>This speech goes from planned-out to off the top awesome.</p><p>Martin Luther King, Jr. and his team of speechwriters went through several drafts of the original text. In fact, it wasn't originally titled "I Have a Dream." One of the working titles of the speech referenced the idea of a "bad check," or broken promise of freedom for African Americans. When he got up to speak, MLK stuck to his notes at first. But by the middle, he started to improvise, throwing out more and more variations on the theme "I have a dream." </p><p>It was like jazz, or freestyle, or a guitar solo&mdash;take your pick. However, MLK's inspiration wasn't so much from music as religion. In the tradition of Black churches, a preacher or reverend often fires up the crowd with some impromptu programming. The grand and eloquent style of the improvisation here, which draws heavily on metaphors, is also evidence of the speaker's reverend DNA. </p><h3>How it Breaks Down</h3><h4>The Bad Check</h4><p>After a reference to the end of slavery after the Civil War, MLK unleashes the speech's original central metaphor: the "check" owed to African Americans by the rest of America. He calls giving freedom to all people a "sacred obligation," (4.5) foreshadowing the combination of religiosity and politics that will make up the rest of the speech. He compares the dream of equality to the overall American dream, setting up the universality of the speech's overall message.</p><h4>The Urgency of Peace</h4><p>The middle of the speech focuses on the specifics of the movement MLK led: goals, methods, and motivation. He encourages his fellow protesters to stick with their long-term struggle by embracing redemptive suffering, using non-violent methods, and joining with people of other races. The other main point of the section is to not wait or be satisfied for changes. </p><p>Go for the win <em>now.</em> </p><h4>The Dream</h4><p>In the last section of the speech, MLK describes his dream. And unlike most dreams, which feature flying pigs, talking mushrooms, and appearances from exes, this dream is all about America. </p><p>In particular, it's about a future in which there's "a beautiful sympathy of brotherhood" between people of all races (18.4). The last lines tie together some of the speeches overarching themes: religion, hope, and visions of the future. </p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="tone" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Tone</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>Religious Optimism </h3><p>A reverend's job is to make you believe. Unlike <em>The X-Files: I Want to Believe</em>, religious leaders tend to do this with faith and optimism. </p><p>MLK's speech doesn't say that things are going to be easy, with allusions to violence between races, and persistent racism in the south (9.2-4). But by the end, the speech practically explodes with optimism. That's kind of the whole point of the "dream" motif. Don't forget, he concludes the dream section with </p><blockquote><p>This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. (18.1-2)</p></blockquote><p>It's pretty important for speakers to end on an optimistic note at rallies. Without the audience's belief (or, in religious terms, faith), it's unlikely that they are going to act to make a difference. After all, coaches don't go into the locker room at halftime and say "folks, let's just quit, because we're going to lose." </p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="title" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">What's Up With the Title?</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><p>"I Have a Dream" was largely improvised, but King and his team of writers had toyed with similar themes in other speeches&mdash;the early drafts of the big kahuna. </p><p>In 1961 and 1962. King gave several speeches called "The American Dream," where he used the phrase "I have a dream." (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) In 1962, at an African American high school in North Carolina, he gave an hour-long speech with language that closely resembled the seventeen-minute version from 1963. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) </p><p>Some scholars maintain that the original title of the 1963 speech was a variation on "<a href=";pg=RA1-PA158&amp;lpg=RA1-PA158&amp;dq=normalcy--no+more+martin+luther+king+jr&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=P3A3p4kADR&amp;sig=B7RN6Au6X1WjclMPjGGPP4ms5bA&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=X&amp;ved=0ahUKEwj0pc3WhonQAhUIilQKHctSBH8Q6AEIZzAP#v=onepage&amp;q=normalcy--no%20more%20martin%20luther%20king%20jr&amp;f=false" target="_blank">Normalcy No More</a> "&mdash;which is way, <em>way</em> less inspiring.</p><p>Others suggest that King toyed with titles related to "the canceled check." The metaphor of a "bad check" elaborated the idea that the promises of the American Revolution excluded African Americans. </p><p>Drew Hansen, a King scholar and author of <em>The Dream</em>, wrote that the original title was "Cashing a Canceled Check," and also pointed out that King didn't always compose exact speeches. Instead, he rearranged and edited material from previous speeches to make a new bit. In fact, King and his speechwriters pulled an all-nighter just to cobble the thing together. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) </p><p>The point of all this is that the speech didn't get the nickname "I Have a Dream" until afterwards. Any "official" title that it might have had disappeared as soon as he started preaching from the pulpit. The fact that we now know it as "I Have a Dream," its name in history and culture, just shows how much of the speech was improvised. </p><p>Not bad for a first try.</p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="opening-lines" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">What's Up With the Opening Lines?</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><blockquote><p>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.</p><p>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 N*gro 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. (1.1 &ndash; 2.1)</p></blockquote><p>Was MLK right about the March on Washington being the greatest demonstration of all time? It's hard to measure these things, but at least 200,000 people were in attendance. The entire Washington mall was blanketed by people and picket signs. In short, this was one of the biggest deals in the history of big deals.</p><p>But these opening lines are really all about the man on the penny&mdash;Honest Abe Lincoln. The speech took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, making the guy who ended slavery a literal backdrop for the event. MLK even told his allies that he wanted the speech to sound like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. </p><p>There's a specific point of all the references to Lincoln, and it's not just about name-dropping. By bringing up the "captivity" of slavery, MLK is making the case that discrimination, segregation, and racism were a new kind of captivity&mdash;subtler than the outright atrocity of racism, but still outrageous.</p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="closing-lines" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">What's Up With the Closing Lines?</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><blockquote><p>And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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 N*gro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (21.1)</p></blockquote><p>This is the type of thing you would hear being sung in an African American Baptist church. Like a post-service hymnal, the song is meant to leave people with a feeling of hope and warmth as they exit. Think of the way you felt at the end of <a href="" target="_blank"><em>The Shawshank Redemption</em></a> &hellip;and then multiply it by a thousand and apply it to real life. <br /> </p><p>This closing line is also a masterful example of oratorical flow, which is kind of like rap flow, except without a sick beat. It's an entire paragraph consisting of just one elegant sentence. The single sentence mirrors the idea of a unified society&mdash;different groups getting along, as one. It also keeps the audience waiting, hanging on every word, until the big climax: free at last. To mix musical metaphors, this is sort of like how house music has huge bass drops after a build-up. </p><p>Along with all this, the closing sentence crystallizes the universality of King's vision. His dream is not just to promote the rights of African American people. It's applicable to everyone&mdash;all Jews, and Catholics, Protestants and Gentiles. Ending on this note is a call to urgent action for people beyond the African American community.</p><p>Seriously: <a href="" target="_blank">go take a listen to the speech</a>. We promise: you'll feel elated and revved up to go out and effect some dang change in the world.</p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="difficulty" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Tough-o-Meter</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>(2) Base Camp</h3><p>Martin Luther King wasn't playing around when he delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. He wasn't playing around when it came to packing a punch with his amazing thoughts, and he wasn't playing around with complicated, fussy, SAT word-laden compound sentences.</p><p>The man had something to say, and he wanted <em>everyone</em> to hear it. Bonus: he wanted everyone to hear it in seventeen beautifully brief minutes.</p><p>So don't worry: the short length, simple structure, and big-crowd vocab of "I Have a Dream" make it one of the easier historical texts to read. And, if you listen to a recording of the speech (which you really should, because MLK's voice is amazing) they're a breeze. </p><p>The only catch is that, in order to understand the speech properly, you have to have an appreciation of the historical tensions of the time. But hey: that's why we're here. </p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="allusions" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Shout-Outs</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>In-Text References</h3><h3>Historical and Political References</h3><p>Emancipation Proclamation (2.1)<br />Constitution (4.2)<br />Declaration of Independence (4.2, 12.1)<br />Governor George Wallace (16.1)</p><h3>Pop Culture References</h3><p>My Country 'Tis of Thee (Song) (19.1)</p><h3>Biblical References</h3><p>Amos 5:24 (9.9)<br />Isaiah 40:4-5 (17.1)</p><h3>Religious References</h3><p>"Free At Last" (African American spiritual) (21.1)</p><h3>References to This Text</h3><h3>Historical and Political References</h3><p>Ronald Reagan, "Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday" (10.5), (13.1), (19.1)<br />Barack Obama, "Speech on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington" (4.3), (17.1)</p><h3>Pop Culture References</h3><p>Common ft. Will.I.Am: "A Dream" (11-18.1)<br />Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The King (15.1), (20.2-5)</p><h3>Cultural References</h3><p>Drew Hansen, <em>The Dream</em><br /><a href="" target="_blank"><em>I Have a Dream</em> Foundation</a> <br /><a href="" target="_blank"><em>I Have a Dream</em>&mdash;Broadway production</a> <br />Michiko Kakutani, "The Lasting Power of Dr. King's Dream Speech"<br /><a href="" target="_blank">New York City National Archives</a>, "Martin Luther King, Jr." </p></div></div></div></li><li data-class="SHSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="trivia" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Trivia</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><p>Marlon Brando was in attendance at the March on Washington. He might not have been a contender in <em>On The Waterfront</em>, but he was certainly a contender in the Civil Rights Movement. Bob Dylan was also there. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) </p><p>The March on Washington cost around $30,000. Compare that to President Obama's first inauguration, which cost $170 million dollars by some estimates. As Dylan might have put it, "the times they are a-changin." (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) </p><p>Martin Luther King, Jr. almost pulled an all-nighter, staying up until 4 a.m. the night before the speech. A little cramming never hurt anyone. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>) </p><p>Though "I Have a Dream" was largely improvised, the written speech was a hybrid of several previous speeches King had delivered. So, yeah, it was a sequel. At least he got some practice in. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>)</p><p>After the March on Washington inspired a big media response, the FBI released a memo describing MLK as "the most dangerous N*gro&hellip;in this nation from the standpoint of communism." FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was the Michael Jordan of paranoia. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>)</p><p>The militant African American leader Malcolm X said of King's receiving of the Nobel Prize: "he [got] a peace award before the war is over." And Malcolm wasn't talking about the Vietnam War. (<a href="" target="_blank">Source</a>)</p></div></div></div></li></ul>

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