Study Guide

Martin Luther King, Jr. in I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have a question for you: how on earth do you throw together a snappy intro for a dude like Martin Luther King, Jr.? No; really—how do get quippy when it comes to a guy who spent his life working for justice, held fast in his understanding that protest should be nonviolent, led the Montgomery bus boycott, helped organize the March on Washington, did work to end housing segregation in Chicago—and, like a cherry on top of a civil rights sundae (because there's nothing more delicious than civil rights) won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Hmm…guess you introduce him just by stating part of his resume.

MLK, who's considered to be one of the greatest orators of all time didn't live to see forty, but his legacy is untouched by time. And "I Have a Dream" is the most famous part of that legacy.

Early Life/Motivation

As a child, young Martin thought he was going to have a pretty normal life as a preacher. His dad and grandfather were preachers, so following in their footsteps was par for the course—it was kind of like the family business.

But, like most young people, things didn't go according to plan…thanks to the huge issue of prejudice and discrimination against Black people. MLK witnessed America's mid-century race problems up close, and these experiences launched his life on the trajectory that made him one of the most famous leaders of modern times.

Dude's like a phoenix: he definitely rose from the ashes of despicable race-based discrimination.

It all started when he was a kid. King had a white childhood playmate but, one day, his friend came up to him and said they couldn't hang out anymore, because his dad didn't want the two buddies coming into contact with each other. The moral of this story? Some people are just insanely terrible human beings. (Source)

As an adolescent studying to join the ministry, MLK struggled with two different perspectives on race. From his childhood experiences onward, he had seen discrimination up close in too many incidents to list. So should he be angry with white people? Or was it his duty as a Christian to love all people, as his parents had taught him?

Dr. King's religious philosophy ended up influencing his later activism. Through undergrad and his PhD program, he experimented and struggled with different ideas about the nature of Christianity, eventually settling on a liberal Christian philosophy that emphasized community and brotherly love. (Source)

In "I Have a Dream," you can see evidence of this aspect of MLK's religious training, especially when he talks about including "our white brothers" (8.6), and many other groups, in the movement for change. Think of this quote as Evidence Exhibit #1,345 that MLK was a phenomenally awesome human being.

Bus Boycotts and SCLC

In 1955 the Supreme Court had already ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education but segregationists had dug in their heels all over the South. (Because, like that one father of MLK's childhood friend, the idea of Black and white students studying together was just too crazy.) One of the main forms of Jim Crow segregation involved public transportation. African Americans were required to give up their bus seats to white people, and often couldn't even get a ride.

Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. Afterwards, leaders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) picked Martin Luther King, Jr., a young and charismatic preacher, to be the spokesman for a boycott movement.

Yeah. They picked the right guy.

The Montgomery boycott went on for a year. Participants were harassed and homes were attacked (including MLK's) but, in the end, Alabama courts ruled against segregated public transportation. It was King's first big success as an activist—but, obviously, it wouldn't be his last. (Source)

In 1957, he took it to another level by founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a religious organization dedicated to coordinating peaceful protests. King's admiration of the Indian revolutionary leader Gandhi inspired his emphasis on non-violence. At one point he even visited Gandhi's birthplace to pay homage to his hero. Under King's leadership, protests throughout the South remained peaceful. Shoot-outs were rejected for sit-ins, and blood was rejected for boycotts. (Source)

How "I Have a Dream" Went Down

All the activism up to that point climaxed with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Before, the SCLC and other activist groups had focused on protesting in cities throughout the South, but now they wanted to go straight to the center of American power: the capitol.

At the end of the march, which gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. One of the most famous Black writers of the 20th Century, James Baldwin, said of the speech, "it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real." (Source)

For about twenty minutes, those in attendance, even the pessimistic Baldwin, believed that the dreams would come true. (Source)

And Dr. King's speech yielded some real-deal results. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the year after "I Have a Dream," gave the federal government authority to enforce segregation. King's reputation grew as the battle for civil rights kept on. In 1964, he also got the Nobel Peace Prize. He probably would have preferred more laws to enforce desegregation, rather than a medal—but hey, you have to take what you can get.

A Life Cut Short

MLK was an activist leader until the tragic end of his story. In the late '60s, he began to focus on antipoverty, organizing efforts demonstrations in Washington and Tennessee. In early April of 1968, he traveled to Memphis to support a protest by sanitation workers.

On April 4th, he was fatally shot in his hotel by a white supremacist named James Earl Ray. He was only thirty-nine years old, already having proved himself as one of the greatest leader of his generation.

The night before, speaking at a local Masonic Temple, he had told his audience, "I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." (Source)

Because of course Martin Luther King would give a better eulogy for himself than anyone could give for him. He was just that good.