Updated: Jul 31, 2020
The performance stands as one of the most impressive orations of all time.
Filled with allegory and presented with dramatic flair, the message resonates as strongly today as it did over 50 years ago.
It turns out that Dr. King delivered variations of his I Have a Dream speech many times before and after the “official” date of August 28, 1963. In fact, King had been using the dream concept in speeches as early as 1960.
The “official” version of I Have a Dream was almost certainly an amalgamation of new and used content. The August 28 performance, however, received massive media coverage.
The speech was attached to an event called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and was delivered to over 200,000 civil rights supporters.
Here’s how the famous speech came to be.
“I have a dream,” 17 minutes of infamy
The origin of the I Have a Dream speech is well-documented on Wikipedia and elsewhere.
Dr. King’s most famous oration is a 17-minute masterwork in which he called for an end to racism in the United States.
The most famous version of the speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement and did a lot to bolster King’s reputation as an orator.
On that day in 1963, Dr. King was introduced as “the moral leader of our nation.” The large audience was excited and receptiv.
King began his powerful address by referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves in 1863. He went on to say that “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”
At the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text to riff on the phrase “I have a dream.”
Witnesses say that King may have been prompted by his friend, the singer Mahalia Jackson, who was near the podium (pictured above). She cried out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
We may never know if Ms. Jackson was echoing Dr. King or if she was anticipating “the dream sequence" because she had heard it before.
A recurring dream
King had been speaking about dreams since 1960.
That year, he gave a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The speech was titled, The Negro and the American Dream.
He also delivered a “dream” speech at Detroit’s Cobo Hall in June of 1963. King was in Detroit to march on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Reverend C. L. Franklin, father of the singer, Aretha Franklin.
The I Have a Dream speech was not only delivered several times by Dr. King, it’s known to have several versions.
The piece was originally titled, Normalcy, Never Again.
The famous version of the I Have a Dream speech was drafted with the assistance of Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones.
Jones has said that “the logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech [itself] was not a priority for us” and that “the evening before the march, Martin still didn’t know what he was going to say.”
That is, unless the great orator had actually delivered bits of the speech before.
Quoting the greats
I Have a Dream had a thundering resonance in Washington on August 28, 1963. The message endures not only because of what Dr. King said, but how he said it.
Like many brilliant orators and authors, King uses words and ideas from his own speeches and other texts.
I Have a Dream is widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric partly because King borrowed from political manifestos such as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the United States Constitution.
King alludes to the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III when he says, “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn…”
Martin Luther King had spoken about dreams, quoted lyrics from popular patriotic songs and invoked Bible verses for years.
King also is said to have adopted verbiage from Prathia Hall’s speech at the site of a burned-down church in Terrell County, Georgia in September of 1962. Hall, then 22-years-old, repeats the phrase “I have a dream” in her noteworthy oration.
The closing passage from King’s speech partially resembles Archibald Carey, Jr.’s address to the 1952 Republican National Convention. Both Carey's and King's speeches end with a recitation of the first verse of Samuel Francis Smith’s popular patriotic hymn America (“My country ’tis of thee”), and both encourage us to “let freedom ring.”
None of this is to take away from the brilliance of Dr. King’s assembled content and his masterful delivery. His speech is not plagiarism, it’s well put together. And it’s a bit of showbiz.
Allow me to repeat myself
King uses a technique known as “anaphora,” the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences, as a rhetorical tool throughout the speech.
An example of anaphora is when King urges his audience to seize the moment: “Now is the time…” is repeated four times in the sixth paragraph of the I Have a Dream transcript.
The most widely cited example of anaphora is the “I have a dream…” phrase, which is repeated nine times as King verbally paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience. King cleverly uses the phrase at the beginning and at the end (epiphora) of sentences.
King also uses anaphora when repeating the phrases:
One hundred years later...
We can never be satisfied...
With this faith...
Let freedom ring...
Free at last...
Toward the end of the famous version of I Have a Dream, Dr. King seems to abandon his prepared speech and adjusts his verbal cadence into a kind of preaching rhythm, repeating the phrase “I have a dream” for emphasis.
Perhaps the most famous line of the King speech is “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!”
Here’s a re-mastered version of the I Have a Dream speech, along with the brilliant text.
History in the making
Politicians and orators of today would do well to study King’s success with the I Have a Dream speech.
Journalist, James Reston covered the March on Washington for the New York Times, writing that “Dr. King touched all the themes of the day… He was full of the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi and the cadences of the Bible.”
Reston also noted that the event “was better covered by television and the press than any event here since President Kennedy’s inauguration,” and opined that “it will be a long time before [Washington] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude.”
Oddly, the speech did not appear in writing for 20 years. In August of 1983, a transcript was published in the Washington Post.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the Library of Congress honored the speech by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.
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