I Have a Dream Speech | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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I Have a Dream Speech | Main Ideas

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The Promise of Freedom

Many white onlookers were startled by the apparent suddenness with which the civil rights movement had taken hold in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their surprise at the seemingly new demands of African Americans went hand in hand with resistance—often violent resistance—in places where racial segregation had long been practiced. The response of Southern leaders to the desegregation of public schools in the late 1950s, for example, was sometimes tantamount to insurrection. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus (1910–94) summoned the National Guard to prevent black students from attending Central High School, a formerly all-white institution. This step was taken despite the fact that school segregation had been ruled unconstitutional in 1954, three years prior to the incident. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) eventually responded to Faubus's act by sending federal troops to escort the students.

In Virginia, meanwhile, opponents of desegregation had sought to use legislative means to block the integration of schools. Their plan, termed "massive resistance," entailed the enactment of state laws to simply close schools rather than desegregate them. In a series of articles, Richmond newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick declared that states could "interpose" themselves between the public and the federal government. Schools began to close in accordance with state directives. In 1959 the issue made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court and then to the U.S. District Court. There, the acts of "interposition" were declared unconstitutional, and the schools were reopened. Even then, some Virginia districts continued to shutter their schools rather than admit black students. One county persisted in this practice until 1964.

King is aware of these efforts to thwart racial integration and alludes to them in his speech. But he also makes a broader point. Really, he says, the demonstrators at the March on Washington are not asking for anything new or extravagant. Rather, they are demanding the fulfillment of a promise made nearly two centuries ago, a promise that extends the same freedoms to all. By drawing on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, King frames racial equality as an extension of the rights guaranteed by those revered documents. He traces, in effect, a direct line from the Declaration of Independence, through the Emancipation Proclamation, and right up to the freedoms demanded on that summer afternoon in 1963.

A New Form of Slavery

Typical of his impressive writing ability and powerful oratory skills, King's speech is packed to the brim with vivid imagery. Some of this comes from the Bible. Some comes from literature, music, and history, and some—evidently—from King's own imagination. Among the many colorful and striking metaphors presented in his address, there are a few recurring motifs that speak to King's central concerns. One such motif is that of captivity, in the form of either slavery or imprisonment. By repeatedly evoking chains, manacles, prison cells, and other apparatuses of restraint, King connects present injustice with centuries of past wrongs.

Almost at the outset of his speech, King makes a startling claim: 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, "the Negro still is not free." African Americans have not been subject to chattel slavery for a century. However, he says, they are still "badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." In some cases, King notes, these restraints are literal, as when protesters are physically imprisoned for their acts of civil disobedience. Yet, he observes, there are also metaphorical chains of various sorts impeding African Americans in their quest for true freedom. He mentions or alludes to several such impediments. These include the redlining that excluded African Americans from purchasing real estate in certain neighborhoods. Impediments also include the hostile police presence that made it dangerous even to visit those same neighborhoods. In addition, they include the discriminatory policies that kept African Americans from finding jobs. That these chains are figurative does not, for King, make them any less real. "As long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he says, advocates of civil rights "cannot be satisfied."

In speaking of shackles and chains, King is linking the civil rights struggle of his time all the way back to the days of slavery. The link goes further back to the biblical narrative of the Babylonian captivity. Moreover, he is framing the widespread discrimination against African Americans as the continuation of the injustices of slavery. As with the freedoms he celebrates and hopes to advance, King's reframing of these injustices helps to establish the civil rights movement as something enduring, not ephemeral. The issue of the moment may be voting rights, fair housing, or employment opportunities, but the larger struggle goes back much further.

American Brotherhood

In the 21st century the demonstrations led by King, Mahatma Gandhi, and others tend to be valorized as successful examples of nonviolent protest. In 1963, however, it was far less obvious that such forms of protest could be effective in the United States. Many did not share King's belief that a racially integrated American society was possible or even desirable. It would be an existence in which black and white Americans attended the same schools, dined at the same restaurants, and lived in the same neighborhoods. Thus, when King speaks of brotherhood, he is not repeating a cliché. He is asserting a firm and potentially controversial position within an ongoing debate of his era.

King is not subdued or hesitant in his images of interracial and interreligious friendship. He looks forward, not to a day when people of different races have learned merely to tolerate one another, but to "that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands ..."

Elsewhere, he mentions Alabama, then viewed as a state particularly hostile to African Americans. He says that even there his dream is that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." These words, it must be remembered, were spoken eight years to the day after a black teenager in Mississippi had been murdered by two white men. The teenager was Emmett Till (1941–55). His crime, in the eyes of his killers, was having had the audacity to whistle at a white woman. His murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. They later confessed to having killed Till to intimidate African Americans and keep them "in their place." While King spoke of brotherhood, many still held on to visions of a society in which black and white Americans lived separately.

King's images of a shared table and a shared song are striking, even more so when taking into consideration that advocates of ethnic nationalism and separatism existed on both sides of the color line. Perhaps the most famous of the Black Nationalist groups of the era was the Nation of Islam. White nationalist and supremacist organizations were more numerous than is usually realized, but the best known is undoubtedly the Ku Klux Klan. It arose in the Reconstruction-era South and experienced a resurgence during the civil rights movement. In many parts of the South, local police forces turned a blind eye to the Klan's program of violent intimidation—sometimes even taking part in it themselves.

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