One in every of the greatest thrills of writing a book on the 20 most inspiring speeches of The 20th Century was to sit down and actually undergo “I’ve A Dream,” word by word, and attempt to clarify why it mesmerized 250,000 and adjusted the course of American history. What did Dr. King do this mere mortal speakers do not?
I remember analyzing the speech on a flight from LA to NY and feeling a bit uncomfortable about it as, greater than once, I used to be literally moved to tears, just by the beauty, depth and soul of the words themselves. Martin Luther King, I realized, moved his people and the nation not only by being certainly one of our most gloriously charismatic speakers, but because he was one among America’s greatest speechwriters.
And his speechwriting touched a young politician so profoundly that he ended up writing what needs to be regarded as the 2nd most historically significant speech by an African-American in the precise length as Dr. King’s masterpiece. Both “I’ve A Dream” and Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote that launched his successful campaign for president, out of nowhere, were 16 minutes and 11 seconds long!
“I’ve A Dream” is a flawless speech and on this momentous 50th Anniversary, it’s my pleasure to share the complete analysis from my book, Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events.
Analysis: The “I’ve A Dream” Speech of Dr. Martin Luther King
I’m happy to hitch with you today in what is going to go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, an important American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared within the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to finish the long night of their captivity.
In 1963, and to this present day, many individuals believe that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was the greatest speech of the nineteenth century, if not the greatest speech ever given. Notice how Dr. King begins what many believe is the best speech of the twentieth century as Lincoln did by setting the speech in time. Using Lincoln’s life and work as the inspiration for his speech gives it immediate credibility. Note, too, the extraordinary and vivd use of visual imagery. On this paragraph alone you will find six such images: a symbolic shadow, a beacon light, seared in flames, withering injustice, joyous daybreak and long night of captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still just isn’t free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro continues to be sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty within the midst of an enormous ocean of fabric prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro remains to be languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Here, the words within the corners of American society add visual dimension to our idea of languishing. The phrase an exile in his own land is a direct and poignant allusion to the biblical “stranger in a wierd land,” while the repetition of the phrase one hundred years later hammers home just how critical the situation is. ____________________________________________________
In a way we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men in addition to white men, can be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We come now to the metaphor-that of an unpaid debt-that drives considered one of the fundamental themes of this speech.
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,
Having cleverly put the Founding Fathers within the role of debtors and aroused our sympathies for the holders of that debt, King-by inserting the easy word sacred -has elevated the Founding Fathers’ promissory note to a spiritual, not only a legal, obligation.
America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
King now takes this imagery a step further. Not only is it a debt; it’s a debt that has been greater than defaulted on. America has tried to drag the wool over the eyes of blacks, and passed a bad check. To anyone who ever struggled over money-and little doubt there have been some in his audience-the image of an “NSF” check hit home.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the good vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Look how he rips the carpet out from under the 2 most obvious objections to his point (always better to answer critics before they can attack) and notice how elegantly he uses strong visual imagery to diminish their argument.
We’ve got also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This isn’t any time to interact within the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
The counter point of the fierce urgency of now with the luxury of cooling off and the tranquilizing drug of gradualism makes both a visual and ironic statement.
Now could be the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now could be the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
The strong visual imagery continue – five vivid word pictures in this paragraph alone.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there’s an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those that hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and can now be content could have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there might be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
As King continues, together with Shakespearean allusions, he makes essentially the most of the photographs of heat with nuanced references to the violence of earlier summers and the potential for future eruptions.
But there may be something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the technique of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Allow us to not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
Suddenly, in these next sentences, King shifts gears. Speaking directly to the blacks in the audience, he issues a call for dignity and discipline, not violence.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Many times, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for a lot of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to comprehend that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to understand that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
Invoking soul force instead of physical force, Dr. King now addresses those among them who’ve been calling for violence. He compliments them on their marvelous new militancy, and, true to the spirit of the March, reminds them that every one white people should not their enemy and that both communities’ destinies are intertwined.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We are able to never be satisfied as long because the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a bigger one. We will never be satisfied so long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We can’t be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
Using the age-old and very effective technique of asking a question, Dr. King answers it with specific demands, providing a counterpoint to the more general imagery that precedes it. Nevertheless, he never lets go of the rhythm that builds the emotion in his speech. Notice how he uses six parallel sentences in a row (never be satisfied or cannot be satisfied) to hammer the purpose home.
No, no, we’re not satisfied, and we won’t be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Remarkably, this was the very last line that came from Dr. King’s prepared text. From this point on, he didn’t look at his speech, but-master orator that he was-allowed the emotion and inspiration of the moment to carry him as he delivers the remainder of this speech extemporaneously. Read the following paragraphs carefully and you will notice that the tone becomes more personal and less intellectual, more heartfelt and fewer academic and, yes, vastly more spiritual.
I’m not unmindful that some of you’ve got come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you’ve got come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you may have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You will have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
One of crucial parts of any speech is the moment where the speaker “identifies” with the audience and shows either that he’s considered one of them or that he truly understands them and speaks for them. Usually this comes toward the beginning of the speech, but Reverend King did not need to do this; his audience already identified with him. Instead, he uses this device toward the top of his speech to launch his “call to action”.
Return to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, return to Georgia, return to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow within the valley of despair,
Unearned suffering could also be redemptive, but King knows he must bring his audience back to their earthly goals. Using short phrases and repeating them, he builds to a crescendo (the shorter the phrase, the easier it is to build rhythm; the more the repetition, the greater the emotion). Interestingly, Dr. King, in his prepared text, had planned to say, “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction,” but decided instead to go along with this way more positive call to action. Six times he repeats the phrase go back.
I say to you today, my friends.
And so though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
Amazingly, as he explains in his autobiography, the word dream and the complete I have a dream theme weren’t in his prepared text. Spontaneously, he says, he decided to go back to a theme he had used in Detroit two months earlier, and, without notes, went where it took him. Without the I have a dream theme, the speech, as written, was terrific, but the repetition of this theme-a theme that everyone could immediately relate to-gave the speech a dimension that transcended time and place.
It’s a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
Here, within the very first sentence after announcing the theme, Dr. King continues to broaden the appeal of the speech to incorporate all people, not only the blacks within the audience. With this single sentence he tells the rest of America that he and his followers believe in the same things as they do, and that there is no such thing as a reason to fear.
I’ve a dream that someday 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.”
I’ve a dream that someday on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will likely be able to take a seat down together on the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that at some point even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will at some point 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 that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — sooner or later right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will probably be able to hitch hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
Repeating some of the inspirational themes of any speech eight times, the speech really starts to sing.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places might be made plain, and the crooked places will likely be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
His years as a preacher came to the forefront here. How can anyone not be moved by such perfect cadence, imagery, and power?
That is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we’ll have the ability to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we can be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a wonderful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will probably be free one day.
King now steps back a bit, perhaps to rest before building to another, even higher crescendo. Although he still uses repetition, the sentences are longer, less rhythmic, however the imagery remains to be strong. Reinforcing the spiritual tone, he repeats the word faith to add momentum, and within the last sentence, pulls out the stops with five successive uses of the word together that kick the speech into virtual overdrive.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will have the ability to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
As he moves toward the ultimate crescendo, he brilliantly pulls at our patriotic heartstrings, evoking the very foundations of the country to make his point. No one, irrespective of how jaded, could argue with the hope of those two sentences.
And if America is to be an amazing nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of recent Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of recent York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and after we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and each hamlet, from every state and each city, we will be able to hurry up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will probably be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: