Study Guide

I Have a Dream Themes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  • Race

    Obviously race is the name of the game here. If white leaders had given due rights to African Americans from the start, there might have been no need for a March on Washington, a Civil Rights Movement, or the "I Have a Dream" speech. Nope, nope, and nope.

    From day one of American history, race has been the huge ketchup stain on America's cashmere sweater. It's a stain that hasn't totally come out, even with multiple washings.

    MLK's idea of race is a progressive one. Instead of trying to wash out the stains, he imagined knitting a new sweater—moving slowly toward something new and better, namely a society without racism. In this speech, the end of discrimination is described as America's IOU to African Americans. It's not a potential improvement, but a necessary overhaul.

    Questions About Race

    1. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. think America should be post-racial, or colorblind?
    2. Is it possible to ignore race in contemporary America in order to try to create equality? Would this be a good idea?
    3. How were African Americans still not treated equally in the 1950s and '60s, long after the end of slavery?
    4. What are some likely reasons that slavery didn't end during or directly after the American Revolution?

    Chew on This

    Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" links the history of early America to the racism of modern times, in order to show that African Americans are still not free.

    MLK's "dream" is of a race-equal society, rather than a race-free society.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    You may have seen this one coming, but…"I Have a Dream" is about dreams. (Also, just to be clear, MLK is not talking about the type of dreams that you have when you're asleep. If he were, he'd probably dream about Black and white people riding flying with pink and purple sea lions.)

    MLK states at the beginning of the speech that 1963 was the "beginning" (7.2) of the quest for equality. That means that his dream is idealistic and ambitious. It's a look toward the faraway future, kind of like how your personal dreams are well ahead (we're not famous singers yet, either). MLK aims for the moon in order to inspire the listener to strive higher.

    The sad part? Half a century after "I Have a Dream," America still isn't totally there. (Source)

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    The speech names several dreams. How would you summarize Martin Luther King, Jr.'s overall dream? Do you think that MLK's dream has been achieved in modern times? Name some rhetorical devices that the speech uses to describe the "dream." What political methods does MLK suggest to achieve his plans for the future of race relations?

    Chew on This

    Martin Luther King, Jr.'s hope is for African Americans to be able to participate in mainstream American society.

    The speech references both American history and American culture to illustrate examples of what African Americans wanted—the American Dream and unalienable rights.

  • Equality

    The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence promised equality. Equality is supposed to be synonymous with America. In reality, however, the drive toward equality has been a continuing effort throughout this country's entire existence.

    To start with, slavery was the norm in 1776 and continued for almost a hundred years. A hundred years after the Civil War, segregation and discrimination still lurked like predators. Nowadays, gaps in economic prosperity and education mean that people are still "unequal." In that sense, "I Have a Dream" is just as relevant today.

    Questions About Equality

    1. What does "equality" really mean? Can all people really be equal in a practical sense?
    2. What role should the federal government take in enforcing and instituting equality in America?
    3. Are the different ethnicities in modern day America really equal, or does inequality still exist?
    4. Can people be equal if they are separated, or segmented off, to different corners of society?

    Chew on This

    Americans have always disagreed on the definition of equality—specifically, whether basic equality under the law amounts to total equality in real life.

    Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech is about legal equality, economic equality, and social equality.

  • Repression

    To make a compelling argument for change, you have to first make the case for why change is necessary. In 1963, many whites were asking what exactly African Americans wanted. America had already gotten rid of slavery and passed a Fourteenth Amendment. Wasn't that good enough? What else did they want?

    These arguments are pretty hard to sell unless you have blinders on. Even today, economic inequality between the races is so pronounced that it's hard to make the case that America is an "equal" society, at least in economic terms. (Source) Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" points out several examples of continued repression, both racial and economic.

    Questions About Repression

    1. What were the main forms of repression that Martin Luther King, Jr. was protesting in "I Have a Dream?"
    2. How were federal and state governments failing to protect citizenship rights for African Americans in the 1960s?
    3. Throughout American history, what are some forms of repression that leaders have fought against?
    4. Would you define repression as an economic phenomenon, a political one, or both?

    Chew on This

    Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that African Americans were shunted to the periphery of society by both poverty and racism.

    Because of segregation and lack of educational opportunities, African Americans remained repressed in America even after the end of slavery.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Which passages in "I Have a Dream" reflect Martin Luther King, Jr.'s background as a preacher?
    2. How does the religiosity of the speech affect the message, especially at the end of the speech?
    3. Which rhetorical devices are used to convey the religious aspect of the speech?
    4. The speech references both American values and Christian values. What is the relationship between these two different types of values?

    Chew on This

    Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to instill a combination of persistence and faith in his followers.

    The ending of "I Have a Dream" ties together a message of religious tolerance with cross-racial unity.

  • Visions of America

    The vision of "I Have a Dream" goes beyond the scope of the Civil Rights Movement—this speech can be applied toward many fights to end racism and inequality. That's probably why the speech has stood the test of time.

    The speech calls for permanent changes in order to make America "great" (20.1). This idea is rooted in the belief that America's history is flawed and checkered, that the nation isn't the shining city on a hill that it set out to be. For MLK, the persistent legacy of slavery and discrimination had to be resolved for the long term, even throughout the South.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, do you think he would be satisfied with the state of American politics and social relations?
    2. The vision laid out in "I Have a Dream" is both general and ambitious. Do you think it's attainable in reality?
    3. Do you think America was already a "great" nation in the 1960s, with its history of racism? What about now—how "great" is the country?
    4. For regions/states with a history of slavery and/or racism, what do you think it takes to create positive change?

    Chew on This

    Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of America foresaw a continuous, and peaceful, struggle toward a more perfect union.

    "I Have a Dream" actually focused its message on the parts of America with the most racial problems.

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