Revisiting The “Dream Speech”: Martin Luther King’s Vision of a Redeemed America

January 14, 2011

Martin Luther King will forever be associated with the vision of America achieving its aim of a “more perfect union.” King’s speech envisioned a renewal of America, a redeeming of its ‘soul.” Moreover, the “Dream” speech re-set the framework for racial dialogue and the boundaries for political possibility-dismantling of racial segregation. Throughout the speech, King uses biblical to frame and reinforce his argument and to give the Dream speech the authority of God and the Bible.

Strategically, the Dream speech can be divided in three parts. The first part of the speech lays out the legal and political argument for dismantling racial segregation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, 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… But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 an appalling condition.

The second half of the speech sets forth the vision of a re-make of America, the casting off of its shameful and disgraceful past, and the dawning of a new age in which America, in particular white people, embrace in practice in sacred creed enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

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.”

Next, King articulates in an elegant and mesmerizing fashion the vision of a “New America,” beginning first with the reconciliation of black and whites, recognizing and embracing each other’s humanity. And, as Drew D Hansen points out, in “1963 blacks and whites sitting together at any table in Georgia, much less the “table of brotherhood,” was unthinkable. King recast the image of an integrated group eating together in the language of prophecy. A great feast is a Biblical image of God’s reign.”

I have a dream that one day out 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.

King continue to sketch his vision by contrasting what Mississippi is now- vicious, murderous place, a place consumed with hatred- with what it can and will be- an oasis of freedom and justice. He sums up the history of injustice and white supremacy in Mississippi with his imagery of the state as “sweltering with the heat and injustice of oppression.”

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat and injustice of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

King then continues his vision of America with one of the most memorable, but now misused and abused phrases and concepts: African Americans being judge on the content of their character rather than the color their skin. Here King envisions an America free of all and discrimination, a nation in which skin color does not determine life changes and life possibilities. As King once noted, “The finest [black] is at the mercy of the meanest white man.”

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.

Continuing his assault on entrenched racism and white supremacy, King takes to task the stronghold and citadel of the confederacy-Alabama and its most visible symbol its governor. King uses some of his strongest language, citing its lethal cocktail of hatred and a governor will to defy the constitution and the Supreme Court Brown v Board of Education decision which became the law of the land. Despite this, however, King is hopeful and confident that reason and morality will prevail and children-black and white will hold hands- a symbol of the triumph of the civil rights movement and the opening of a new era. In the visions of the biblical prophets, author Dan Drew; remind us, children were often assigned the role of bringing in the new age: A Little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor having his lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

King caps his vision with a refrain which “drew upon Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Kingdom of God.” The imagery of changing the configuration of valleys and mountains is God at work and an affirmation of the righteousness of the civil rights struggle.

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 plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

The third and finally part of the Dream speech, King pivots and exhorts everyone to engage in work and struggle in order to bring to fruition the “Dream.”

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. 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.

To be sure Martin Luther King’s Dream speech is the yardstick by which we measure racial progress as it relates to African Americans. Yet, more profoundly and perhaps more useful, it is the yardstick for measuring the “Just and Righteous” society.

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