Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks as one of the most famous of American speeches. As Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, says in his video above, it’s “arguably the most important and well-known speech of the 20th century.” King’s popular vision of a peaceful, harmonious, multiracial democracy might explain why nine out of ten Americans have a positive attitude toward King now. That polling looks very different by party affiliation. Even so, many more Americans look fondly on King’s memory than supported (or now support) the racial and economic justice for which he fought. The current use of King as a whitewashed martyr figure, Michael Harriot argues, obscures the reality of “a dream yet unfulfilled,” as King once called the U.S.
Even after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win, only about 37% of Americans approved of his message in 1966 Gallup polling, a number that dropped even lower when he came out against the Vietnam war in 1967. Approval for MLK “only started to shift after his assassination in 1968,” writes Senior Data Scientist Linley Sanders at YouGov. King’s “Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial may be posthumously remembered as his finest hour by those who weren’t there. For thousands of people who were, his address was also a fiery summation of the major themes up to that point in dozens of speeches and sermons.
“Riddled with big difficult terms and full of rhetorical devices that are intentional and practiced,” Puschak says, the speech eloquently explained “why fully 100 years after… the Emancipation Proclamation,” Black Americans were still politically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. It did so through a series of dense allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation, the country’s founding documents, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and other artifacts of American national identity, in an attempt to “frame civil rights in the larger American mythology so that those who identify with that mythology might incorporate this struggle into that story.”
The American story has justified oppression and fear of the same people fighting for full integration into the national polity during the Civil Rights movement, a problematic irony of which King was hardly unaware. He also drew from traditions older than the U.S. founding — the humanism of Shakespeare and the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, for example. These were indeed practiced maneuvers. (King very much lived down the C he once got in a public speaking class.) But the rousing refrains in his speech’s conclusion — which gave the speech its title and spread its fame around the world — were ad-libbed.
“I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point… the audience response was wonderful that day” King later remembered. “And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.'” The reference didn’t come out of nowhere, says Clarence Jones, who helped King write the speech’s text just hours before it was delivered. Jones recalled that King’s favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out for the then-familiar (to her) theme:
As he was reading from the text of his prepared remarks, there came a point when Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting on the platform, said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.”
Now I have often speculated that she had heard him talk in other places… and make reference to the dream. On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express reference to the dream.
When Mahalia shouted to him, I was standing about 50 feet behind him… and I saw it happening in real time. He just took the text of his speech and moved it to the left side of the lectern. … And I said to somebody standing next to me: “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”
Before celebrating a redeemed interpretation of the American dream in his extemporaneous finale, King’s speech condemned the nation’s reality as morally corrupt and illegitimate. He urged restraint among his followers through nonviolent “direct action,” but foresaw worse to come before the country could realize its potential.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.
“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King continued. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Maybe it’s little wonder many white Americans, hearing these remarks, turned away from King’s vision of racial justice, which required reckoning with “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Ending the “unearned suffering” of Black Americans, King knew, would come at too great a cost to unearned privilege. Indeed, the FBI heard King’s words as a direct threat to the country’s historic power structure. After the “I Have Dream” speech, the Bureau seriously intensified its program to surveil, discredit, and destroy him.