I Have a Dream Speech | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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I Have a Dream Speech | Quotes

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1.

Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.


Martin Luther King Jr.

King begins the substance of his speech with an allusion to the Emancipation Proclamation, which broadly decreed the abolition of slavery in the United States. The proclamation is a fitting starting point for several reasons because the march took place during the 100-year anniversary of its signing. Furthermore, King and the other speakers addressed the demonstrators at the Lincoln Memorial, meaning they were standing in that "great American's" shadow a bit more literally than this quotation lets on. More substantially, King begins with the proclamation because it marks the starting point of a long and still ongoing process of liberation for African Americans.

2.

But 100 years later the Negro still is not free.


Martin Luther King Jr.

If, as King suggests, the Emancipation Proclamation heralded the end of slavery in America, it did not spell an end to racial injustice. After acknowledging the proclamation as a symbol of hope, King asserts that African Americans do not yet enjoy true freedom. Rather, they remain oppressed by a system of legal and extralegal discrimination that effectively renders them second-class citizens. King proceeds to address many facets of this system in the remainder of his speech.

3.

One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.


Martin Luther King Jr.

King here addresses what would later be called the "two societies" problem. Although black and white Americans live in the same country, he notes, African Americans are cut off from many of the opportunities that have made life better for their white counterparts. Postwar prosperity had improved the lot of many, perhaps most Americans, who benefited from a housing boom and saw many former luxuries become affordable. African Americans, King argued, were largely shut out from these improvements by a system of social, legal, and economic barriers.

4.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.


Martin Luther King Jr.

King develops the "check-cashing" metaphor throughout the early minutes of his speech. The image, though it may seem oddly informal, is chosen to convey the obligatory nature of the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In writing these documents, King argues, the founders of the republic established certain rights as the common heritage of every American. These rights, like the sum represented by a check, are supposed to be enjoyed the moment they are claimed, without delay or negotiation.

5.

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.


Martin Luther King Jr.

On its surface, this sentence appears to be a straightforward continuation of the "cashing a check" imagery used earlier in the speech. However, by appealing to the "bank of justice" and insisting that it honor its obligations, King is also making an important statement about the role the American government is to play in securing civil rights. He "refuses to believe" that American laws and institutions are so fatally corrupt that they cannot answer his demand for justice. In other words, he is calling for a reform of the system, not a rebellion or a revolution.

6.

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.


Martin Luther King Jr.

Gradualism, which King critiques here, is a political philosophy that prefers slow and measured progress to sudden and immediate social change. As King was surely aware, the concept had been used in discussions of American race relations since before the Civil War. Having seen how gradualism failed to advance the condition of African Americans during and after slavery, King is skeptical that it will do anything but "tranquilize" those protesting now.

7.

We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.


Martin Luther King Jr.

Nonviolence was a central tenet of King's political philosophy, something he demanded of his followers even when they themselves faced physical violence. King is not naïve about the suffering and sacrifices involved in nonviolent protest, nor does he expect his opponents to refrain from the use of physical force. He does, however, possess a religious conviction—shared in this speech—that "unearned suffering is redemptive." Knowing his listeners are weary of being abused and oppressed, he will ask them to share his faith.

8.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.


Martin Luther King Jr.

Here, King offers a concrete image encapsulating the many injustices facing African Americans in the domains of housing, schooling, and employment. Although African Americans are nominally free to move throughout the country, King says, their options for where to live are limited by both official and unofficial forms of discrimination. Forbidden from living in white neighborhoods and denied the opportunity to participate fairly in the workforce, they are effectively confined to a "ghetto" wherever they may go.

9.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.


Martin Luther King Jr.

This is another biblical quote. This is from the fifth chapter of the Book of Amos. Like King, Amos was a preacher of social change who critiqued the injustices of his time. Earlier in the chapter from which King quotes, in fact, Amos challenges those who "afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and [who] turn aside the needy in the gate." The demand to "let justice roll down like waters" is spoken on God's behalf. The idea is that God prefers acts of justice to any kind of ritual sacrifice.

10.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering.


Martin Luther King Jr.

With these lines, King pays tribute to those who have participated nonviolently in the civil rights struggle but have been treated violently in response. Their suffering, he says, is "creative," which may seem an odd juxtaposition of terms. Nonviolent protest, as King saw it, was creative in multiple senses of the term—largely because it took great creativity to find a nonviolent yet effective way of militating for change. Another sense in which suffering can be "creative" is elaborated later, when King asks his listeners to trust that their suffering will help create a better world.

11.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'


Martin Luther King Jr.

Here, King quotes from the famous opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. One of his recurring themes throughout the speech is that racial injustice is not only morally wrong but also deeply unpatriotic in a nation professing the values of equality and freedom. Here and elsewhere, King challenges Americans—those present and those watching or listening at home—to live up to the ideals on which their country was founded.

12.

I have a dream that my four little 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.


Martin Luther King Jr.

This is by far the most famous sentence of King's speech and it has been thoroughly analyzed by the speech's many commentators. One aspect of this "dream" worth noting is that it has a definite time horizon—one might informally say a deadline. King wants an end to racial prejudice not at some unspecified time in the future but within his children's lifetimes. In this respect, King is more closely aligned with those demanding an immediate end to discrimination than he is with the gradualists.

13.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together [...] knowing that we will be free one day.


Martin Luther King Jr.

Much of King's speech is grounded in facts obvious to many of his listeners. Early on, he speaks of the segregation of housing, education, and other aspects of American life. He describes the injustices faced by African Americans as a virtual continuation of slavery. Here, however, he asks his listeners to make a leap of faith and believe that their suffering will amount to something. For King, this faith has a religious quality and aligns the civil rights advocates with the redemptive suffering of Christ.

14.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.


Martin Luther King Jr.

This is a quotation from the patriotic song "America," sometimes known by its first line, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." The words to the song were first composed in 1831, set to a melody dating back to the early 18th century. King takes this familiar song and offers a remarkable interpretation of its lyrics, proclaiming his wish that freedom ring "from every mountainside." If America is to live up to its appellation as a "land of liberty," King suggests freedom must ring out across the entire country, even in the places most violently gripped by racial injustice.

15.

Free at last, free at last, great God a-mighty, we are free at last.


Martin Luther King Jr.

King concludes his speech with a line from another song, an African American spiritual (i.e., traditional hymn) celebrating the freedom that comes from accepting Jesus. This is, perhaps, the most memorable example of a rhetorical gesture King uses throughout the speech: the yoking together of civic and religious values. Freedom from earthly oppression, for King, is bound up closely with the much grander freedom promised in the Christian Scriptures.

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