In Washington before a crowd of 250,000 demonstrators, black and white, the civil rights activist declared: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Tapping into the spirit of the civil rights movement, King threw a spotlight on race in a speech that resonated in America and beyond.
But what made King’s speech so powerful, and why do we continue to celebrate it? Fifty years on, we ask leading historians – is ‘I have a dream’ the greatest speech in history?
“He never lost some element of hope”
“Calling King’s address ‘the greatest in history’ is a tall order, for any historian to judge and any speech to live up to. It certainly should be classed as among a handful of epochal speeches in US history, perhaps second only to the Gettysburg Address.
“The speech crystallises some of King’s greatest gifts, not the least of which an ability to address diverse constituencies with one voice – to both revive the souls of the march participants and to stir the consciences of the greater public beyond, to speak eloquently to the African American experience and yet also the wider American spirit simultaneously.
“He meant to give ‘new meaning’, as he said in the speech, to old words and clichés that nonetheless were rooted in broader notions of the American Dream.
“What this anniversary and the canonization of King’s speech should not obscure is the import of that new message as harkening King’s later evolution as a political radical.
“Even his soaring oratory at the March on Washington spoke of cashing a cheque, of laying claim to the economic aspirations that remained largely out of reach to African Americans.
“It foreshadowed King’s deepening critique of the wider structures of America that would dominate his thought and the social and political conflicts of the 1960s.
“Yet he never lost some element of hope, despite all the reasons for pessimism, that America might yet fulfill its fullest promise.
“That those tensions could exist simultaneously is the real message behind King’s speech and where the civil rights movement stood in 1963.”
Benjamin Houston is a lecturer in 20th century US history at Newcastle University
“King’s speech resonated not only throughout the United States but across the world”
“On 28th August 1963, a quarter of a million demonstrators, black and white, converged on the capital of the United States to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Almost singing the words in his soaring baritone, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream of a United States that a century later finally fulfilled the promise of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
“King’s inclusive vision of a country united across its racial and religious divide emphasised the idealism and determination of a civil rights movement that had over a decade of struggle developed an unstoppable political and moral momentum.
“While many commentators observe that the March on Washington had a negligible impact on the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, none deny the importance of the event in awakening the national consciousness.
“King’s speech resonated not only throughout the United States but also across the world. Performing what one British newspaper described as ‘its most dramatically historic duty so far,’ a Telstar communications satellite allowed audiences in this country to witness the march, although only the end live.
“The speech had an influential impact on public debate about race in Britain. A British press moved by the cadence and content of King’s oration pointed out that it should not only stir the United States Congress but also Parliament to enact legislation promoting racial equality.
“While his focus was on his own country, King’s dream of racial reconciliation and harmony had a transcendent appeal to Britons shaken in recent years by race riots of their own.
“Little more than a year later, King would preach to an audience that filled the aisles at St. Paul’s Cathedral, encouraging black and white Britons to help transform an American struggle for civil rights into a global movement for human equality.”
Clive Webb is a professor of Modern American History at the University of Sussex
“The most telling section of the speech was not its ‘Dream’ but that black Americans had been given a ‘bad cheque'”
“Here, context is all. For many of the strategists who were close to King and activists who were present, this was not even the greatest speech at the March on Washington, let alone of King’s career.
“In terms of oratorical style it was curiously subdued, lacking the signal changes of timbre and pace that characterised the southern Baptist tradition of which King was a part.
“In terms of content, the most telling section of the speech was not its ‘Dream’ but an earlier passage which detailed the real reason that lay behind the gathering at the March on Washington: that black Americans had been given a “bad cheque” at the time of their purported Emancipation 100 years previously, which they were now coming to Washington to demand to be cashed.
“The idea of a ‘Dream’ caused consternation: King’s confrères deemed it hackneyed to the point of cliché; radical student activists were dismayed to hear a black leader dreaming of a far off future.
“For those who had not heard King’s oratory previously, however, the reception was altogether different, and this is where the genius of the speech truly lies.
“Deep in the White House, President John F. Kennedy openly declared that King was ‘damn good’. Northern white liberals, who provided much of the Democrats’ electoral base, were deeply impressed by his level-headed demeanour and statesmanlike tone.
“King seemed sensible, dignified and, perhaps most crucially, a man with whom it was almost impossible to disagree. When March organiser A. Philip Randolph introduced King to the press that evening as ‘the moral leader of our nation’, many of that audience understood why.”
Dr George Lewis is a reader in American History at the University of Leicester and director of the Centre for American Studies
“Not even the best speech of the day”
“The majority of King’s famous speech is largely forgotten today; only the ‘I have a dream’ peroration commands the headlines. For that, we have the singer Mahalia Jackson to thank: as King reached the end of his prepared text, and sensing that his words had fallen a little flat, she called out, ‘Tell them about your dream, Martin’.
“Drawing on a theme that he had rehearsed in earlier speeches, King outlined his hope 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’.
“He finished with an emotionally-charged vision of a future 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 rousing conclusion – with its powerful fusion of patriotism and religion – transformed a good speech into a truly great one, whose full power can only be realised by hearing it.
“As one onlooker recalled, King’s words ‘just seemed to move you almost off the earth’. However, just before King took to the stage John Lewis, the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had delivered a forthright denunciation of the Kennedy administration’s failure to protect civil rights organisers from the savage violence of southern segregationists.
“Imploring America to ‘wake up’, he called for a nonviolent revolution that would ‘splinter the segregated South’ into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy’. It was the best speech of the day.”
Dr Simon Hall is a senior lecturer in American History at the University of Leeds
“What lent the speech greatness was the context”
“One of the greatest, certainly. Some of the phrases combined remarkable poetry and power: ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ and ‘meeting physical force with soul force’.
“The message was unfailingly positive and inclusive, the joining of hands not just on the ‘prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire’ but even on every ‘molehill of [segregationist] Mississippi’.
“The argument drew deeply from the ideals of the founding fathers: King’s dream was ‘deeply rooted in the American dream’.
“And the delivery was unsurpassed – a preacher, drawing on the promises of God and the passion of the crowd: ‘Thank God Almighty. Free at last,’ and ‘Let Freedom Ring’.
“What lent the speech greatness, though, was the context. King had given versions of the speech before. But now it was the height of the civil rights movement, in the heart of Washington, in front of a crowd of a quarter of a million people.
“There were many other great American speeches, of course. But for people in Britain, this speech undoubtedly had the greatest impact.
“Again, context was key. The Telstar satellite had just been launched and this was one of the first overseas events that Britons could watch live on television. There was keen interest to do so.
“In the run up to the march, the American movement dominated the front pages of British newspapers. When King marched in Washington, hundreds marched on the US embassy in London in solidarity.
“And Britons drew connections with their own struggle over racial equality. Protests for equal rights for new immigrants were deeply influenced by the American example.
“Unbeknown to King, the same day that he spoke in Washington, the Bristol Bus Company announced – in response to a lengthy bus boycott – that it would drop its colour bar in employment.”
Dr. Stephen Tuck is the director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and author of We Ain’t What We Ought To Be: the black freedom struggle from emancipation to Obama
“Too much emphasis on the ‘Dream’ can obscure other important aspects of King’s magnificent oration”
“I Have a Dream” is rightly considered one of the most important speeches of modern history, yet its significances and meanings are often misunderstood.
“While it is impossible not to sympathise with the sentiments expressed in the stirring finale, as King imagines a world of interracial harmony where people ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’ too much emphasis on the ‘Dream’ can obscure other important aspects of King’s magnificent oration.
“The speech bristles with barely concealed frustration at the slow pace of federal action to support black civil and voting rights.
“Brilliantly blending practical politics with his inspiring social vision, King reminds white Americans of the continuing abuse of black rights (African Americans generally did not need reminding), condemns the gap between America’s democratic ideals and the realities of its racial practices (hence the speech starts with a nod to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”, and frames black demands within the context of America’s core civic values), and hints at the dire consequences of failing to address these issues immediately (the speech is haunted by the spectre of more militant black protest if nonviolent demands for basic citizenship rights are not met).
“I think it is also highly significant that King spoke at a march ‘For Jobs and Freedom’. ‘We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,’ he warned, foreshadowing a struggle for equality of economic opportunity and against economic exploitation that, along with his anti-war activism, occupied King’s final years.
“Those topics remain relevant to all progressive movements and help to explain the enduring appeal of King and his finest speech.”
Brian Ward is a professor of American Studies at Northumbria University
“The ideal of equality it expresses is timeless”
“Martin Luther King’s speech is arguably the greatest speech in history. The ideal of equality that it expresses is timeless, but connects to America’s founding values, specifically the 1776 Declaration of Independence’s preamble that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.
“It was specifically intended to promote the achievement of a civil rights act in America (Congress approved measures outlawing segregated public accommodation and employment discrimination in 1964 and affirming voting rights in 1965), but it speaks to wider concerns of human rights beyond America’s shores.
“It is suffused with Christian ideals of the African-American experience as a divinely-guided progress towards Canaan, the promised land of freedom, but it has resonance for freedom movements in the Muslim world – not least the Arab Spring.
“By comparison, presidential inaugural addresses are very thin fare, with only three truly memorable ones in the twentieth century (FDR’s in 1933, JFK’s in 1961, and Ronald Reagan’s in 1981 – but these only spoke to their times).
“Arguably the only American rivals to the King speech are FDR’s ‘Four Freedoms’ address (actually the State of the Union address of January 6, 1941), and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of November 19, 1863, and his second inaugural address of March 4, 1865.
“Significantly, each of these deals with the ideals of freedom and equality. Delivering the ‘I Have a Dream’ address at the Lincoln Memorial, King began it by drawing on the Gettysburg address.
“Two things give his speech the edge over the others: it was delivered by an African American rather than a member of the white establishment; and it has benefited from the modern media’s massive dissemination of its message beyond America – something the others came too early for.”
Professor Iwan Morgan is professor of US Studies and Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London
This article was published by HistoryExtra in 2016