Study Guide

I Have a Dream Main Idea

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

<ul data-content-type="accordion" data-appearance="default" data-element="main" style=""><li data-class="SHMainIdeaSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="main-idea" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Main Idea</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>A Dream of Racial Progress </h3><p>Hey, Shmoopers: you <em>better</em> get to know this speech. Not because you're getting tested on it, or because you want to throw around kick-butt quotes at a party, or even because you want to expand your mind. When it comes to "I Have A Dream, " we get even more fundamental than that.</p><p>You better get to know this speech because you're a person with a heart. (Any people without hearts, you can go on your merry way.)</p><p>And, as a person with a heart, you're <em>super</em> invested in everything that MLK has to say in "I Have A Dream."</p><p>You want proof? No problem. In the beginning, MLK references the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery. You read that right: hundreds of shameful, brutal years of slavery ended with one incredibly important stack of paper. That better get your heart beatboxing.</p><p>After setting the stage with this reference, MLK discusses the problem of the day: racial discrimination. And we're not even talking about the massive amounts of racial discrimination that still plagues the U.S. of A. We're talking about an even worse chapter (ugh, history is depressing) that included rampant segregation, Jim Crow laws, and most of white America doing its best to pretend that nothing bad was going on. ("Persecution towards the Black community? I don't know anything about <em>that.</em>")</p><p>At this point, your heart should be thumping with anger.</p><p>But then, MLK starts riffing (we mean <em>really </em>riffing) on his "dream," a vision of the future of American race relations. The speech fast-forwards from the past to the present to the future. In MLK's dream scenario, racism would not prevent African Americans from holding jobs, exercising their rights as citizens, or pursuing the American Dream. Kids wouldn't be held back from opportunity based on their skin color. Descendants of slave owners and descendants of slaves could put their differences aside. </p><p>And <em>that</em>, folks, is why "I Have A Dream" is so momentous. Because MLK guides your little blood-filled human heart on a journey from historical relief to then-present day righteous rage to a feeling of hope, possibility, and the potential goodness of humankind. You'll walk away from this speech on wobbly legs, tears in your eyes, and your heart filled.</p><h3>Questions About Main Idea</h3><ol><li>How would you summarize MLK's overall dream? </li><li>Using evidence from the text, would you describe MLK's vision as primarily optimistic or pessimistic?</li><li>Why might references to the Emancipation Proclamation be located at the beginning of the speech, playing the role of kick-off? </li><li>Does the speech envision a future without racism in general, or just without discrimination/segregation specifically? </li><li>What steps still have to be taken for MLK's dream to be realized in America?</li></ol><h3>Chew on This</h3><p>Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" leaves the door open for a continual journey of racial progress&mdash;it doesn't cap things off with 1963. </p><p>"I Have a Dream" portrays racial equality as a fulfillment of the promises of America's Founding Fathers and documents. </p></div></div></div></li></ul><ul data-content-type="accordion" data-appearance="default" data-element="main" style=""><li data-class="SHPlotOverviewSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="summary" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Brief Summary</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><h3>The Set-Up</h3><p>We know that the name "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" is a little bit of a mouthful&mdash;but this is to pressure the Washington establishment to pay more attention to civil rights and take legal steps to outlaw segregation is one of those things that you <em>have </em>to know about. Whether or not you're a history buff or someone who's only vaguely aware of the fact that 1776 was a <em>pretty </em>big year, get your knowledge on when it comes to the March on Washington for a couple of reasons.</p><p>Reason #1: it was one of the largest protest marches in American history&hellip;and that's a history that has contained a <em>lot</em> of marches. Reason #2: Martin Luther King, Jr. was the big finale. </p><p>There were so many speakers that day that by the time he came to the podium and delivered "I Have a Dream," some people had already left, like people leaving during the fourth quarter of a basketball game. </p><p>And those people that left are probably <em>still </em>regretting that. </p><h3>The Text</h3><p>100% pure oratory awesomeness. Next question?</p><p>Oh, never mind. We're more that happy to lay out the text of "I Have A Dream," even though it starts our bottom lips quivering and our normally cynical hearts turning to hopeful mush.</p><p>The speech starts out by naming the huge problem: one hundred years after slavery ended, African Americans are still oppressed. As King himself put it, "We've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition" (3.5). (MLK was <em>pretty</em> good when it came to expressing things.)</p><p>At first, MLK sticks to the basic ideas he and his allies had written out before the speech. He describes the treatment of African Americans as a defaulted check&mdash;as in, the U.S. government wrote a check that bounced, and Black Americans got exactly <em>nada.</em> <br />He argues, "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the N*gro is granted his citizenship rights" (7.5). The message is clear: this movement ain't stopping. King continues by giving encouragement to people who went to jail or got attacked by police while demonstrating for civil rights. Then he assures everyone that he (and the audience) won't be "satisfied" (9.4) until there's total equality in America. This is moving, riveting stuff, but it ain't half of what's coming.</p>&#160;&#160; <p>Then the speech goes the improv route&hellip;and gets elevated from an already amazing speech to so-amazing-its-required-reading-for-all-Americans-starting-in-grade-school. Even wonder why there's an MLK day every January? This speech is at least 40% of the reason why, guys.</p><p>In a style that reflects his day job as a reverend, Martin Luther King, Jr. riffs on the "I have a dream" theme. For six paragraphs in a row, he describes a vision of racial unity between descendants of slaves and slave-owners&mdash;a revolution of tolerance. </p><p>The end of the speech references the song "America The Beautiful," riffing on the phrase "let freedom ring" (20.2-8). Another song, the African American spiritual "Free At Last," wraps up this epic speech. </p><h3>TL;DR</h3><p>This guy has a dream that one day all races will treat each other equally. Um, <em>yes.</em> </p></div></div></div></li></ul><ul data-content-type="accordion" data-appearance="default" data-element="main" style=""><li data-class="SHStudyQuestionsSection" data-content-type="accordion-item" data-appearance="default" data-element="main"><h3 id="questions" data-collapsible="true" data-element="trigger_title" class="allow">Questions</h3><div data-content="true"><div data-element="collapse_target"><div><ol><li>What kind of vision of the future of race relations does Martin Luther King, Jr. portray? How does it compare to current race relations in America? </li><li>The '60s Civil Rights movement achieved several important legal objectives. Does this speech focus on specific objectives, or general ideas? </li><li>What role does American history play in MLK's overall argument? </li><li>Does the speech seem targeted at both African Americans and whites, or just one or the other? </li><li>How does the religious content of the speech influence its overall effectiveness?</li><li>Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.'s use of rhetorical devices such as metaphor. What do these methods contribute to the content of the speech? </li><li>"I Have a Dream" has inspired huge numbers of people. What do <em>you </em>think makes the speech so inspirational? </li></ol></div></div></div></li></ul>