It is now incontrovertible that Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr.’, I Have A Dream speech, stands as the greatest speech of the twentieth century. Thus, the 50th Anniversary of the speech as well as the anniversary of the March on Washington merits the media attention it has received. King’s I Have A Dream speech is taught as part of American History and is reference by those on the Right and Left, liberal and conservatives, blacks and whites. In the lead up to the anniversary of the speech, we have witness various analysis of the speech and heard testimony as to its significance for us today.
Indeed, the dream speech is used to measure the progress of African Americans and to measure how far the nation has come in terms of race relations. To be sure, the significance of the dream speech is predicated on where you stand on the ideological spectrum. Yet, placed in the social and political context of 1963, the significance of the speech lies in the sense of hope and motivation it gave to blacks, the Movement, and the nation.
The year 1963 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and the history of America. It was a year, which saw racial tensions flare and violence proliferate. It was to be sure a violent time. There were calls for blacks to retreat from the protest and marches. Many, including the Kennedy Administration, fear that blacks were inciting whites and thus needed to take incremental steps that was in harmony with southern white approval. And of course, in April of 1963, King wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail in which he castigated those who asked blacks to slow down and wait. King elegantly and poignantly wrote:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights…. Perhaps it is easy for those who have ever felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” …But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that your are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and other resentments; when you are forever fighting degenerating sense of “nobodiness” –then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Thus, it is in this context that we can best appreciate the significance and meaning of MLK’s I Have A Dream speech. King understood both clinically and politically that in order to wage the type of struggle that was needed in the South, blacks, who were apathetic, resentful, fearful and terrorized, needed to be motivated in order to engage in nonviolent social change in the South
Moreover, the history of the Movement made clear that organizing African Americans to oppose and change the system of segregation with its underpinnings of violence and terrorism could not continue with a primary focus on marching and civil disobedience. Instead, the Movement had to harness the unique strengths of southern blacks in a culturally and religiously sensitive way while enhancing their efficacy and ability to confront and change a system, which dehumanized them, eclipsed their human aspirations. Hence, herein lies the significant aspect of the Dream speech.
The “dream” segment of the speech was composed and spoken extemporaneously. As Mahalia Jackson exhorted King to “tell them about the dream,” he went off-script and into a black preacher mode- “engagement and motivation,” and articulated his dream for America. This mode of engagement and motivation, grounded in the black southern faith tradition, emphasized the affective component of the Movement (reducing negativity and giving hope) as a necessary step in the process of social change.
As King spoke, the audience of over a 200,000 persons bore witness in a call and response manner ( It cannot be emphasized enough of the importance of the motivational aspect of the dream speech which was aspirational- America as a “more perfect union” and a call to action). He called upon the march participants and Americans at large to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go black to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
King integrated the hope and aspirations of African Americans with the nation as a whole:
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.
As King continued to articulate his dream, knocking down longstanding and inveterate racial barriers, he made America more hopeful that it could desegregate, be more civil and humane, right its wrongs:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and 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.
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. 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 be free one day.
Moreover, King’s dream speech was successful in creating and atmosphere and spirit which was shared by all (participants at the march, black and whites, and indeed a critical mass of the nation) of hope, expectation of social change, a sense of collective work and responsibility, and a positive sense of alliance. The dram speech in fact was a tipping point for the Movement and the nation.
We salute the Dream and the dreamer-MLK