Study Guide

I Have a Dream Quotes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Race

    This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of N**** slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. (2.2)

    You can't really talk about America without talking about racism and slavery. For almost a hundred years after the American Revolution, slavery was the norm for half the country. The intense metaphorical imagery in this speech hammers home how much human suffering slavery caused. Burning is about the most intense metaphor for suffering out there.

    This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (4.3)

    Technically the Declaration of Independence does talk about "all men" being created equal. What that really meant at the time can be debated. First of all, the statement totally leaves out women (half the population). Second, the Constitutional Convention determined that slaves, the largest portion of "black" people in the country, only counted as three fifths of a person. (Source) "I Have a Dream" interprets those words in a way that makes sense for the 1960s. It's like historical analysis in front of 200,000 people.

    We cannot walk alone. (8.6)

    This punchy line reminds the audience that everyone needs to step in to bring about a change in race relations. African Americans and whites had to both be in the game—you can't run a relay with one person. There were thousands of white people at the March on Washington participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Other whites supported the movement in principle, but didn't do much to participate

    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. I have a dream today. (15.1)

    The most quoted words of the entire Civil Rights Movement. This line imagines a future without racism. That goal sounded like science fiction in the 1960s. Since then, there have been major improvements along the lines of minority rights and upward mobility, but racism still lingers.

    I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. (16.1)

    Focusing on children makes the audience think of segregated schools, a cornerstone of Jim Crow. White parents of the era would often separate their children. Losing a white playmate was a formative experience for MLK himself. (Source)

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. (2.1)

    The idea of the American Dream varies from person to person, but it essentially promises that everyone can have a happy, successful, and free life if they're willing to work hard. Linking the dream of racial equality to the overall American dream gives the speech a quality of universality, or relevance to all people. That's pretty generous coming from a minority that was oppressed by the majority.

    I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." (12.1)

    Here's a reference to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration (which was written by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner) isn't a legal document. It's more like America's mission statement. Like most mission statements, it got totally and instantly violated—by the continuation of slavery after the Revolution.

    I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. (13.1)

    In post-slavery America, a lot of racists justified Jim Crow by suggestion that African Americans and whites could still be equal if they were separated—living in different places, eating at different restaurants, going to different schools, and only marrying within the race. MLK's speech contrasts this with an image of different races being united in brotherhood.

    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. I have a dream today. (14.1)

    This might be the most famous quote of the speech. The American Dream imagines the country as a meritocracy, or a place where the best and hardest-working people rise to the top. Hence, MLK dreams about character determining success. It's a dream of bringing African Americans into the fold of American values, rather than criticizing America's values.

    With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. (18.3-4)

    Martin Luther King, Jr. likes to use metaphor to describe his hopes for the future. Some of the speech's plans for the future are specific, but here he goes for the general; since the context of this speech is a rally with 200,000 people, the non-specific, inspirational, and overarching message is appropriate.

  • Equality

    One hundred years later, the N**** lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the N**** is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. (3.3-4)

    This is an argument against the view that equality under the law is the same as legitimate equality. Slavery was gone by 1963, and the Fourteenth Amendment made discrimination "illegal," but segregationists could still find plenty of ways to keep African Americans in the corners—denying them jobs, bank loans, transportation, voting rights…the list goes on.

    It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the N**** people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. (4.4-5)

    Most people don't remember the extent to which "I Have a Dream" references poverty. This central metaphor of the speech, the idea of a bad check, evokes the idea of financial inequality while also communicating the theme of delayed and defaulted political freedoms. MLK killed two racist birds with one metaphorical stone.

    We cannot be satisfied as long as the N****'s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. (9.6)

    Separation of minority races into ghettos was a long-term trend that began before the Civil War. The inability to escape ghettos for more economic opportunities meant many African Americans had no upward social mobility. As Faulkner said, "the past isn't dead." This definitely applied to people living in ghettos.

    We cannot be satisfied as long as a N**** in Mississippi cannot vote and a N**** in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. (9.8)

    By 1963, every citizen had the right to vote under Constitutional law, but state laws found ways to prevent African Americans from voting. For example, poll operators would require African Americans to take literacy tests, and say that they failed. Nowadays, voter ID laws are similarly controversial—some states require voters to present an ID, and others let people vote without an ID. Voter ID laws are considered by some to be discriminatory toward minorities.

    I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." (12.1)

    A reference to the words of the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King, Jr. goes back to the origins of America to cast the Civil Rights Movement as a protest with historical precedent, rather than a demand for new freedoms. This was an appeal to the white establishment. If you can have it, we should have it too.

  • Repression

    But one hundred years later, the N**** still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the N**** is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. (3.1-2)

    This metaphor compares segregation and discrimination to slavery, using the imagery of chains. MLK states the message straight up: "the N****" (African Americans) is not free. Slavery has been replaced by more indirect forms of repression. Jim Crow was a sneak attack on freedom—and it wasn't even that sneaky.

    And those who hope that the N**** needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. (7.4)

    "Business as usual" is a phrase that Barack Obama would later borrow for speeches during his first presidential campaign. The phrase implies that repression is the norm in American society. In fact, the original title of "I Have a Dream" was "Normalcy—Never Again." For African Americans, being repressed was a daily problem.

    There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the N**** is granted his citizenship rights. (7.5)

    This is another example of MLK arguing that his ideas are not new, but long overdue. Technically, the Fourteenth Amendment did protect everyone's citizenship rights. But Jim Crow laws found ways to limit African Americans' rights to vote, move about freely, and marry with white people. Does any of that sound like free citizenship to you?

    We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only. (9.7)

    Here, MLK is referencing segregated restaurants and other public venues. These forms of discrimination were examples of average people participating in the repression of African Americans. That's right: you too can make a negative difference.

    I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. (10.1-3)

    MLK offers encouragement to people who have been harassed by police, arrested, mugged…sadly, the list goes on. The resistors of the Civil Rights Movement were not going to budge easily. Some of the basic infrastructure of society—schools, jails, police forces, public transportation, voting booths—were deployed to punish protesters. Repression means being held down by the powers that be—also known as The Man.

  • Religion

    No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (9.9)

    This quote compares the goals of the Civil Rights Movement to religious "righteousness," a word that references innumerable Bible quotes. The righteous diction creates the tone of a church sermon, something that MLK had experience with as a Baptist preacher. It also evokes the rhetoric of surfing righteous waves.

    Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. (10.5)

    Redemptive suffering. Hmm…sounds pretty evocative of the story of Jesus. According to Christian theology, Christ's suffering on the cross redeemed the sins of humanity. After Christ, various martyrs and saints suffered in the name of their religious principles. MLK saw his followers as carrying forward the Christian message of brotherly love during the Civil Rights Movement.

    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (17.1)

    An apocalyptic sounding dream pops up near the end of the speech. Christian theology emphasizes that God will lift up the weak and cast down the strong. The idea has roots in the Book of Isaiah. It's a fitting metaphor for African Americans fighting against a powerful white establishment. If you don't like the building, rip it down.

    This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. (18.1-3)

    "I Have a Dream" uses a lot of natural imagery to create its religious tone. Whether it's a mountain of despair, a mighty stream, a valley of despair…you get it. When MLK delivered these lines, the audience cheered a bunch of times. In the words of Han Solo, these lines were visions of grandeur.

    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**** spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (21.1)

    Religious freedom is a typical American value. Here, King talks about religious unity, an innovation on the original concept. This is a part of the speech that universalizes, rather than speaking just to African Americans.

  • Visions of America

    And those who hope that the N**** needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. (7.4)

    In MLK's vision, the changes advocated in the '60s Civil Rights Movement would be permanent and long lasting. In "I Have a Dream," he also communicated the hope for a snowball effect, with which more minority rights would continue to be protected over time. Change is no good if you revert, just like a diet is no good if you cheat on it.

    We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. (8.4)

    Unlike some other American leaders, black and white, MLK envisioned a country defined by peace and non-violence. His hero was Gandhi, the father of non-violent protest.

    The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the N**** community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny… (8.6)

    This is a plea to stay and be part of the solution to a problem African Americans didn't deserve to have. Some African American leaders before Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated a "back to Africa " movement. According to this political philosophy, there was just too much precedent for racism in America for African Americans to survive and thrive there. MLK had the opposite view, believing that whites and African Americans had a "tied up" destiny.

    Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. (10.5)

    This quote only references the South. "I Have a Dream" focused its attention on the states where racism was the worst, not the ones without much history of slavery. In MLK's vision, even the worst parts of the country (*cough Alabama *cough) wouldn't remain the worst.

    And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. (20.1)

    This line blatantly states that America can't be great unless it finally becomes good—by living up to its promise of equality, and finally cashing that "bad check" (4.5) issued to African Americans.