Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

    Contributing Editor: Keith D. Miller

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Context for "I Have a Dream"

    Unfortunately, many students remain blissfully unaware of the horrific racial inequities that King decried in "I Have a Dream." In 1963, southern states featured not only separate black and white schools, churches, and neighborhoods, but also separate black and white restrooms, drinking fountains, hotels, motels, restaurants, cafes, golf courses, libraries, elevators, and cemeteries. African-Americans were also systematically denied the right to vote. In addition, southern whites could commit crimes against blacks-- including murder--with little or no fear of punishment. The system of racial division was enshrined in southern custom and law. Racism also conditioned life in the North. Although segregationist practices directly violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution, the federal government exerted little or no effort to enforce these amendments. Leading politicians--including John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson--advocated racial equality only when pressured by King, James Farmer, John Lewis, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other activists who fostered nonviolent social disruption in the pursuit of equal rights. Fortunately black students are often knowledgeable about the civil rights era and can help enlighten the rest of the class.

    Content for "I Have a Dream"

    "I Have a Dream" has been misconstrued and sentimentalized by some who focus only on the dream. The first half of the speech does not portray an American dream but rather catalogues an American nightmare. In the manner of Old Testament prophets, Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" oration and Vernon Johns, King excoriated a nation that espoused equality while forcing blacks onto "a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

    Context for "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

    By the time of King's final speech, the heyday of the civil rights movement was over. Large riots in major cities and the divisive issue of the Vietnam War had shattered the liberal consensus for civil rights and created an atmosphere of crisis.

    Content for "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

    King clearly wanted to energize his listeners on behalf of the strike. He analyzed the Parable of the Good Samaritan, identifying the Memphis strikers with the roadside victim and urging his listeners to act the part of the Good Samaritan. He also arranged the strike in a historical sequence that featured the Exodus, the cultural glory of Greece and Rome, the Reformation, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Depression, and--late in his address--the lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights and his major crusades in Albany, Birmingham, and Selma. By placing the struggle in Memphis in the company of epochal events and his own greatest achievements (neglecting to mention his more recent, unsuccessful campaign in Chicago), King elevated the strike from a minor, local event to a significant act in the entire Western drama.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    African-American Folk Pulpit: "I Have a Dream"

    Important in reaching King's enormous and diverse audience were the resources of black folk preaching. These resources included call-and-response interaction with listeners; a calm-to-storm delivery that begins in a slow, professorial manner before swinging gradually and rhythmically to a dramatic climax; schemes of parallelism, especially anaphora (e.g., "I have a dream that . . ."); and clusters of light and dark metaphors. Black students can frequently inform their classmates about these time-honored characteristics of the African-American folk pulpit that give life to King's address.

    African-American Folk Pulpit: "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

    Elements of the folk pulpit that animate "Mountaintop" include call-and-response interaction; calm-to-storm delivery; the apocalyptic tone of much evangelistic, revivalist preaching ("The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land"); and the updating of a prominent analogy (or typology) of black Christians equating blacks with Old Testament Hebrews and slave-owners with the Egyptian Pharaoh. King resuscitated the analogy by labeling his opposition as Pharaoh and by urging solidarity among Pharaoh's oppressed and segregated slaves. Concluding "Mountaintop," King boldly likened himself to Moses and foretold his own death prior to blacks'/Hebrews' entry into the Promised Land.

    Familiar Symbolism: "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

    As with "I Have a Dream," King defined his appeal by explaining nonviolence and by applying standard patriotic and religious symbols to his effort. His protest became an exercise of the First Amendment; an attempt to rebuild a New Memphis akin to a New Jerusalem; a later chapter in the book of Exodus; and in his last sentence, a merging of his vision with that of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

    Original Audience

    King spoke "I Have a Dream" to an immediate crowd of 250,000 followers who had rallied from around the nation in a March on Washington held in front of the Lincoln Memorial. His audience also consisted of millions across the nation and the world via radio and television.

    Important in reaching King's enormous and diverse audience were the resources of black folk preaching, including call-and-response interaction with listeners.

    King's audience in "Mountaintop" consisted of 2,000 or so ardent and predominantly black followers gathered to support the cause of striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Old Testament prophets, Frederick Douglass's "The Fourth of July" oration, John Lewis's speech preceding "I Have a Dream," and speeches by Malcolm X.

    In "I Have a Dream" are the voices of Lincoln, Jefferson, Shakespeare, Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, Handel's Messiah, "America the Beautiful," a slave spiritual, and the black folk pulpit.


    For a valuable analysis of King's 1963 address, see Alexandra Alvarez, "Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream': The Speech Event as Metaphor," Journal of Black Studies 18 (1988): 337-57.

    I also encourage teachers to compare and contrast "I Have a Dream" with Frederick Douglass's "The Fourth of July" ( Rhetoric of Black Revolution. Ed. Arthur Smith, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1970. 125-53).

    Useful for such a discussion is Robert Heath, "Black Rhetoric: An Example of the Poverty of Values," Southern Speech Communication Journal 39 (1973): 145-60.

    For background on King, see James Cone, "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Black Theology--Black Church," Theology Today 40 (1984): 409-20; James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991; Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources, New York: Free Press, 1992.

    Playing records or audio-video tapes of King's speeches substantially facilitates discussion of the oral dynamics of the black pulpit that nurtured King and shaped his discourse. The PBS series "Eyes on the Prize" is especially useful. "I Have a Dream" is available from Nashboro Records and, under the title Great March on Washington, from Motown Records. Tapes of these and many other addresses by King are available from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.