Martin Luther King Speech

One of the most famous speeches made by Martin Luther King, Jr., was the one popularly known as the 'I Have a Dream' speech. Read more about it here.
Historyplex Staff
Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the most important leaders of the civil rights movement in America. He fought against the policy of segregation that existed in the country. By profession, he was a Baptist minister, which was one of the few avenues that allowed black people to take up a leadership role.

While he gave many speeches in his life, the 'I Have a Dream' speech has been hailed as one of the most moving, evocative, and momentous speeches made in the history of not only America, but of the world. He delivered it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the 28th of August, 1963, during the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In his speech, Martin Luther King spoke resonantly about his hopes of a future where African-Americans, and all people of all other ethnicities that were discriminated against, would break the shackles of inequality and injustice, and coexist with each other along with the whites in harmony, and as equals. Through his speech, he informed, inspired, and lifted not only the 200,000 to 400,000 supporters of the civil rights movement gathered there, but the world at large. It was addressed to the generations of that time as well as to the future generations to come.

Although the tone of the whole speech was lofty, it was at its ending when he partially improvised on the theme 'I Have a Dream' that took it to the heights of greatness that it is now renowned for. It was on the prompting of Mahalia Jackson 'Tell them about the dream, Marin!' that Martin Luther King, incorporating some parts of a speech he had made earlier in Detroit, began talking about the dream he had, the hopes he had, the aspirations he had for equality and justice for his people.

Excerpts from Martin Luther King's Speech

Martin Luther King began his speech by saying: "I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

He then went on to allude to the Gettysburg address made by Abraham Lincoln by saying: "Five score years ago, a great 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 in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."

Then he described the social conditions that still existed in America: "But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still 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 in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."

Martin Luther King then invoked the words of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence which guaranteed equal rights to all the citizens of the nation, regardless of the color of their skin: "In a sense we have 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 as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Then he addresses his own people, exhorting them to fight the fight for justice with dignity and nonviolence, a philosophy inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: "But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

"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. Again and again 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 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. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

And then, of course, is the most famous 'I have a dream' portion of the speech: "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."

"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.""

"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."

"I have a dream that one day 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 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."

"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."

"I have a dream today."

"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."

Martin Luther King ended his speech with the rallying cry of 'Let freedom ring!': "And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped 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, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, 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 Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!""

The Outcome

The legacy of the speech given by Martin Luther King is quite evident to us today with Barack Obama, a leading candidate in the race for the highest office of the American nation, made Martin Luther King's hopes and aspirations come true.

However, the immediate aftermath of the speech was the pressure that was put on the John F. Kennedy administration to take the civil rights legislation forward in Congress. After the assassination of President Kennedy later that year, Lyndon B. Johnson, his successor, successfully got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, which was followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The speech inspired Time magazine to declare Martin Luther King 'Man of the Year' for 1963. Plus, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, making him the youngest person to have won this award.

The speech was given honor by the Library of Congress when they added it to the United States National Recording Registry in 2002. And, in 2003, as a commemoration of the location where Martin Luther King made his speech, an inscribed marble pedestal was dedicated by the National Park Service at the Lincoln Memorial.