King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, encapsulated the social vision of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement and elevated that movement in the American, and world, consciousness.

Summary of Event

The setting for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s best-remembered speech was the massive March on Washington, D.C., in late August, 1963. On August 28, he delivered the partly extemporaneous address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 200,000 march participants and, through radio and television, to millions of others around the world. To many, it was his clearest expression of his vision for America’s future. His rhythmic repetition of “I have a dream” between each major point of the speech accounts for the attributed title and reflects the measured optimism he sought to project. "I Have a Dream" speech (King)[I Have a Dream speech] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests March on Washington (1963) African Americans;civil rights leaders [kw]King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech (Aug. 28, 1963) [kw]"I Have a Dream" Speech, King Delivers His (Aug. 28, 1963)[I Have a Dream Speech, King Delivers His] [kw]Speech, King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” (Aug. 28, 1963) "I Have a Dream" speech (King)[I Have a Dream speech] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests March on Washington (1963) African Americans;civil rights leaders [g]North America;Aug. 28, 1963: King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech[07670] [g]United States;Aug. 28, 1963: King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech[07670] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 28, 1963: King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech[07670] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 28, 1963: King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech[07670] King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;"I Have a Dream" speech[I Have a Dream speech] Randolph, A. Philip Lewis, John Robert Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights

At the time of the March on Washington, both King and the nonviolent Nonviolence Civil Rights movement were under intense pressure from several directions. The settlement effected on May 10, 1963, after the massive Birmingham campaign was considered inadequate by some critics. Birmingham officials and business leaders had made substantial concessions, including hiring and promoting more black personnel and desegregating public facilities, but there was little assurance that living conditions for African Americans would improve substantially. Violence also continued in Birmingham, beginning with the bombing of the home of King’s brother Alfred Daniel the day after the May 10 agreement.

Furthermore, King’s image among the more militant African American activists was waning. His post-Birmingham national tour brought him in June, 1963, to Harlem, where Black Muslims threw rotten eggs at his car. This troubled King and prompted his belief that they were transferring their frustrations to him unfairly. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation was beginning to spy more extensively on King and his aides, and its director, J. Edgar Hoover Hoover, J. Edgar , was more candidly criticizing King.

In key ways, the Birmingham campaign had been a success. Certainly it had made the public more aware of racial problems in the United States. Scenes of police using fire hoses and dogs against demonstrators, including children, were televised across the nation, heightening public awareness of the plight of African Americans and the entrenched resistance to even minimal desegregation in the South. Offsetting this to some degree was the reluctance of President John F. Kennedy’s administration to meet African American leaders’ demands for a more direct role in mandating desegregation. Kennedy did introduce a civil rights bill in late May, 1963, but because of his narrow election in 1960 that had required support by conservative southerners who opposed integration, he was politically restricted. On May 30, King requested a conference with the president after having consulted several times by telephone with white supporter Stanley David Levison Levison, Stanley David about such a meeting. Levison had suggested that civil rights leaders threaten a march on Washington to dramatize the need for reform, just as labor leader A. Philip Randolph had done in 1941.

Since late 1962, Randolph independently had been discussing the possibility of such a march, and in March, 1963, he proffered the idea to the board of his Negro American Labor Council in New York. Randolph was interested in collaborating with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other organizations in implementing the march, originally scheduled for May, 1963. The SCLC’s activities in Birmingham precluded that march, but planning continued in various circles over the following three months. By late June, King and the SCLC were ready to support Randolph’s general plan and to play a key role in preparing for a massive march in August. Some fourteen civic and civil rights organizations spearheaded the campaign that they hoped would bring more than 100,000 people to the nation’s capital. There were detractors. President Kennedy opposed the idea of a march on Washington, because it might jeopardize the pending civil rights legislation. Radical African American leaders considered it histrionic and accommodating to the white establishment. There was little that could be done about the latter, but march planners agreed to avoid any direct political attacks on Kennedy in order not to weaken his leverage or his support. There was some concern when it was learned that Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader John Robert Lewis was planning to deliver a speech critical of the administration’s civil rights bill. It was released to the press on August 27, the day before the March on Washington, but was toned down somewhat before delivery and had little impact. Generally, the march was orderly and the speakers avoided direct attacks on the Kennedy administration.

Many speakers, including A. Philip Randolph Randolph, A. Philip , National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Roy Wilkins Wilkins, Roy , labor leader Walter P. Reuther Reuther, Walter P. , Lewis, and others, spoke to the crowd of more than 200,000 that rallied near the Lincoln Memorial on August 28. It was a hot, sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the crowd was tiring when King came to the microphone. He had been introduced by the march’s prime mover, Randolph, who had dreamed of this kind of massive display since 1941. King began slowly and deliberately, noting that he was happy to join with the marchers “in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of our nation.”

King spoke of the Declaration of Independence and its recognition of the rights of all citizens, as well as President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. “But one hundred years later,” King said, “the Negro still is not free.” Instead, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” African Americans were in Washington to “cash a check”—to demand their rights as American citizens. The “promissory note” of the founding fathers had never been paid to the nation’s black citizens, the SCLC president averred. King paid respect to those who had suffered in the quest for racial justice, noting that many had been jailed, beaten, and otherwise “battered by the storms of persecution.” In the midst of such difficult times, King affirmed, “I still have a dream.” With that, the crowd became excited. Repeating the “I have a dream” phrase, King outlined his fundamental hopes for the future. “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.’”

From there, King proceeded through several of his specific dreams. One was that “one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” For his own children, he dreamed of the day when they would not be judged “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

In Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, and across the nation, King hoped, racial discrimination and tension would cease. Drawing upon Old Testament prophecy, as he often did, King cried out,

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.”

The ending was dramatic and similarly charged with moral emphases. “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire; let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. . . .” In his panoramic survey of the mountains of America, he included Stone Mountain of Georgia and Lookout Mountain of Tennessee, and “every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountain side, let freedom ring.” If that happened, said King, Americans could speed up the day when all people, regardless of race, religion, or creed, could “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.’”

By then, the huge throng of marchers was electrified. King walked quickly to a car provided by President Kennedy and met with the president, along with several other civil rights leaders, at the White House. The high emotion of the rally now had to give way to the reasoned discourse of political realities of the civil rights bill. No one was sure on August 28 whether it would pass, despite King’s warmly received address.

Significance

The initial impact of the “I Have a Dream” speech was to lift the spirits of the participants and to give the March on Washington a tone of historical importance. King’s speech was to become his most famous, epitomizing for many people the essence of the nonviolent movement’s social vision. It was heard, directly and indirectly, by millions of people, including hundreds of representatives and senators. One of them, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;civil rights , watched and heard the speech with some 150 other members of Congress and remarked that although it probably did not change anyone’s vote on the pending civil rights bill, it was “a good thing for Washington and the nation and the world.” That was generally the feeling among supporters. There were detractors as well, many of whom considered the whole affair histrionic and unrelated to the actual power struggle for civil rights reform.

There is little doubt that the march and the King speech contributed to support for civil rights reform, although resistance to the administration’s bill continued for months and was not overcome until well after Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, steered an enlarged version of the Kennedy bill through Congress in the spring of 1964, and on July 2 signed it into law. Most of the resistance was from senators. House passage on February 10, 1964, was much easier than the months-long process that led to a favorable Senate vote, seventy-three to twenty-seven, on June 19. The role played by the march and King’s speech in that legislative struggle was to provide the example of a basically orderly demonstration and an articulate statement of African Americans’ demands set in a traditional American value structure.

That the speech did not change attitudes widely is also evident. Violence and racial tensions continued. Civil Rights movement;violence On September 15, 1963, just days after the speech, four young African American girls were killed by dynamite hurled into a window of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In St. Augustine, Florida, and several other cities, there were other manifestations of racial violence in the months immediately following the events in Washington. On balance, however, the speech did have significant impact on attitudes. In the address, King had retained continuity with his previous speeches and sermons on human relations. He understood that the task of building bridges between races and social classes would not be easy. That he emphasized the economic plight of African Americans and poor people in the United States assured that there would be controversy, but it also signaled one of the principal emphases of the movement in the period after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The address was highly moral and religious in tone, while linked clearly to the American constitutional tradition. This important aspect of the “I Have a Dream” speech made it adaptable to a variety of uses in churches and civil rights campaigns and in the political processes of civil rights reform. For the SCLC, it became the major symbol of its future programs. Keeping the dream alive was the prevailing theme of King’s organization in his last years and well beyond. "I Have a Dream" speech (King)[I Have a Dream speech] Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests March on Washington (1963) African Americans;civil rights leaders

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. An excellent study of the intellectual and spiritual life of Martin Luther King, Jr. What it lacks in awareness of the controversy about King’s personal life it makes up for with a profound study of King’s education, ideology, and faith. It is indispensable for examining this area of King’s career. Contains notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986. Despite its exposure of King’s personal flaws, Garrow’s account is basically sympathetic and contains useful information on almost all aspects of King’s career. It is relatively short on analysis and probing of the moral dimensions, but it has a detailed summary of events leading to the March on Washington and King’s role in it. Carefully documented, with a detailed index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gentile, Thomas. March on Washington: August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.: New Day, 1983. Published in the twentieth anniversary year of the 1963 March on Washington, Gentile’s account is detailed, illustrated with photographs, and valuable for both its historical information and its capture of the spirit of the large crowd that marched on the nation’s capital in August, 1963. Gentile treats it as a grassroots movement given shape and purpose by key national organizers such as Asa Philip Randolph, various labor leaders, and civil rights advocacy organizations. Includes illustrations, some notes, and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Drew D. The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. New York: Ecco, 2003. A study of King’s famous speech. Also looks at King as a brilliant orator, and places the speech in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard. New York: IPM and Warner Books, 2001. An important and fascinating collection of the text of King’s major speeches. Includes the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, David Levering. King: A Biography. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. This study is more valuable than some of the better documented works in probing the inner meaning and motivations of the nonviolent movement. It has a particularly good section on the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Contains selected bibliography, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the 1980’s. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. This comprehensive study of the SCLC focuses in many places on the moral and religious dimensions of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement and has a detailed analysis of the setting and content of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Contains chronological charts, bibliography, text of the speech, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schulke, Flip. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Documentary, Montgomery to Memphis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Although basically a pictorial account of King’s career from the Montgomery bus boycott until his assassination, Schulke’s fascinating survey also reflects the inner spirit of the nonviolent movement and the King mystique. For the March on Washington, it is particularly valuable in showing the interracial nature of the march, the political contacts with the Kennedy administration, and the reactions of the crowd to King’s speech. Contains extensive explanatory text and excerpts from speeches and sermons by King, including the “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watley, William D. Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1985. A brief but useful study of the ethical content of King’s nonviolent concepts, this book examines the role of the African American religious experience, evangelical liberalism, and personalism in shaping King’s ideas. Watley also focuses on the Albany, Birmingham, and Selma campaigns as contributing factors and concludes with what he calls the six principles of King’s ethic of nonviolence. A sympathetic study but one which retains a sense of balance. Contains bibliography, notes, and index.

Mahalia Jackson Begins Her Recording Career

Montgomery Bus Boycott

SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Selma-Montgomery March

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Watts Riot

Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing

Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination

Categories: History Content