Study Guide

I Have a Dream Historical Context

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historical Context

The Snail's Pace Of History

To quote some white people with very '80s hair: "We're not gonna take it."

For decades in the middle of the 20th Century, that's what African Americans across the country were thinking. Yet during the '50s and '60s (and, many would argue, long afterward) they still had to take it. The Civil Rights Movement, led by folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., was a long and arduous journey toward that elusive thing called "change."

"I Have a Dream" situated the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s within the context of America's messed-up history with race. It painted an idealistic picture of the final endpoint of slow—and we mean slow, like making a glacier look speedy—historical progress.

In his speech, MLK manages to cover about two hundred years of American history, and he does so in only seventeen minutes. That's shorter than an episode of a WB show that covers…literally nothing.

And, since "I Have a Dream" was delivered in the hundredth year after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (not an accident), MLK's speech doesn't focus on the 1960s so much as the totality of what had already happened.

You probably know some of the story already.

Racism And Inequality Through The Ages

The Declaration of Independence declared, "All men are created equal." Yet several of the most prominent Revolutionary leaders—like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—were actual slave owners. That's like moaning about global warming while driving a Hummer.

And, during the Constitutional Convention, the framers decided that, for the purposes of determining a state's population, slaves would count as three-fifths of a human being.

Uh. Wow, that's messed up.

Washington (who left a will emancipating his slaves) rightly predicted that the American union would not be permanently stable until slavery ended. That George Washington was a smart guy. (Source)

Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence (that means "eighty-seven years," btw) the North and South were fighting a Civil War over competing halves of society. One was dependent on slavery, and one advocated abolishing the practice. You might hear that the Civil War was about "states' rights." Well, sure; but the "right" in question was the "right to own slaves." That's sort of like saying The Shining is about a luxury hotel. Source)

When slavery ended, racism didn't end. Under "Jim Crow," a system of discriminatory laws in the 20th Century South, African Americans were forcibly separated from white society. Even in the North, African Americans largely lived in ghettos, having been pushed there by discriminatory housing policies and limited work opportunities.

Midcentury Madness

This continued racism was the target of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s activism. He wasn't alone. Starting in the '40s with A. Philip Randolph's pro-labor activism, protests against the discriminatory establishment slowly grew to a loud roar in the '50s and '60s, when Dr. King rose to prominence.

The 1963 March on Washington pressured the American government to finally pass a Civil Rights Act, outlawing many forms of discrimination. Two years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to secure voting rights for African Americans. They were met with violent resistance. This was the story of the Civil Rights Movement in a nutshell: peace and progress met with violence and resistance. And water cannons. And police dogs. And normally peaceable citizens acting in a hideous manner.

The movement was successful in many respects, partly because the civil rights leaders had specific goals. Many local governments outlawed discriminatory policies like segregated schools and buses by the end of the '60s. Yet while they fought the conditions of the present, they were also fighting the past.

As another white guy put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Bill, we think you're onto something.