Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech
There are few more well-known or powerful speeches that that given by civil
rights leader Martin Luther King on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
The most famous paragraph, embedded in the middle of the speech, is as
"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 a table of brotherhood. I have
a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering
with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of
freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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. I have a dream today."
So lets analyze this for the linguistic power.
I have a dream that one day
The dream is a frame for the future and sets
the stage for the rest of the words. 'Dream' is vague aspiration. 'one
day' starts to make it specific.
this nation will rise up
A hint of revolution, a threat to white
people, that may be scary but is tempered by subsequent words.
and live out the true meaning of its
creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created
A direct quote from Thomas Jefferson, 3rd US
President and author of the Declaration of Independence.
Will be accepted as right by everyone. Lends gravitas to the speech.
'Creed' has religious connotations.
that this is not true today, over 150 years after it was said.
I have a dream that one day on the red
hills of Georgia
Repeating the 'dream', hammering home the
hope for the future.
'red' hints at blood, implying pain, struggle
and injustice. Georgia symbolizes the South.
the sons of former slaves
'slaves' implies injustice and is a highly
evocative word for both black and white people (albeit in different ways).
Bringing up slavery suggests that it is still relevant today.
and the sons of former slave-owners
Slave-owners were white. Black and white are
thus brought together. Repetition of 'slave' hammers home the point.
'Sons' implies both the weight of the past and the familial obligation.
will be able to sit down together at a
table of brotherhood.
After the tension of the previous words, this
offers reconciliation. 'Table of brotherhood' is a homely metaphor (both
table and brother) and triggers feelings of comfort.
I have a dream that one day even the state
Repeating the 'dream' phrase again to
complete a triple.
'even' implies that Mississippi is one of the worst examples of racism.
Yet this, too, is included in the dream.
'state' points at the formal State organization, noting that racism is
a desert state, sweltering with the heat
of injustice and oppression,
The southern state is hot. This is converted
into oppressive heat in this powerful metaphor.
will be transformed into an oasis of
freedom and justice.
Release again. After a tension-filled early
part of the sentence, it ends with hope.
'transformed' implies deep
I have a dream that my four children
The dream metaphor again. Now it is turning
from a triple into a theme.
Children are always evocative. 'my' makes it
personal to King and hence also personal to everyone listening.
will one day live in a nation
Evoking the whole country - not just the
where they will not be judged by the color
of their skin
'judge' is a word associated with oppression,
which is mentioned earlier.
'color of skin' points to the heart of the
but by the content of their character.
Again, a softener at the end. Note the 'c's
that alliterate 'content' and 'character'. 'c' is also a percussive
consonant that bangs out the message. (the 'b's of 'but by' also have this
I have a dream today.
Ending as beginning, bracketing the whole
Note that this is said on a rising upswing, not as a
This is impressive stuff, but what is missing, that adds even more power?
First, there is the remarkable emotion in King's voice and body as he made
Secondly was the context, in the heart of capital city, on the steps to the
memorial of the President who defeated the Southern states over the issue of
Thirdly, the zeitgeist of the day, the feeling and flavor of perpetuated
slavery of black people in the continued racial bias, their rising up against
this and the gradual realization of guilt in white people who stood by and did
nothing. It was King's words and actions that prodded Kennedy into taking up the
What was missed by some, was that King's address had a very strong message
for white people, possibly as primary targets. Whilst he hinted at revolution,
his words were mostly about peace, thus offering a vision into which everyone