28 pages 56 minutes read

Martin Luther King Jr.

I Have A Dream Speech

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1973

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “I Have a Dream”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream'' speech is one of the most celebrated oratory pieces in American history. King delivered the speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963 as the final speech of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Ruston organized the march to advocate for civil and economic rights for Black Americans, which was among the largest political rallies for human rights in history, attracting approximately 250,000 attendants. Following the speech, King was named Time magazine’s 1963 Man of the Year. A recording of “I Have a Dream” has been added to the United States National Recording Registry, and a line from the speech—“Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope”—is the inscription on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.

King opens by stating he is happy to join the audience in a demonstration of freedom. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King notes the Emancipation Proclamation was signed 100 years ago but today, Black people are still not truly free as they lack the same material benefits afforded other Americans. The march is designed to draw attention to that fact.

The marchers are there to redeem a promise, to “cash a check” written to Black people by the US government and the Founding Fathers who promised all men were created equal in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “All men” includes African Americans, yet America failed to deliver on its promise. Instead, it has passed a check that cannot be cashed by Black people. King and the marchers, however, refuse to accept that condition and demand the rights promised them.

The marchers are also there to remind the nation that the present is the time to act. Americans should not fall for the trap of making slow and steady progress. Instead, America must today fulfill the full promise of democracy and racial justice. The summer has been one of discontent, but 1963 is a beginning—not an end. The road ahead will lead to an autumn marked with equality for all people so long as the summer’s protests do not result in a return to the complacency of years past.

King interrupts to warn the audience that the road to freedom must not be laid by bitterness, hatred, or bad behavior—especially violence. Instead, those seeking freedom must hold themselves to a higher moral standard and meet acts of violence with acts of love and faith. It is a good thing Black people are now militant about their freedoms, but they must recognize that there are White people in the crowd who have joined the march and who see their struggle for freedom linked to that of Black Americans. Black people must walk with White people as no one can march alone.

As they march, all must promise to continue marching forward. Many will ask if the marchers will ever be satisfied. The answer is no: They will not be satisfied as long as Black men are victims of police violence, segregation endures, Black people have no upward economic mobility and are disenfranchised. The marchers will not be satisfied until justice and righteousness pour through the nation. 

King turns from the general group (who he has been referring to as “we”) to individual groups (who he refers to as “some of you”). Some present have come from worse struggles than others, some from jails, some from areas in which they have suffered police violence and persecution. But to each of them, King asks them to continue to creatively suffer but to ensure the suffering begets change. He asks them to take that faith back to their home states.

He returns to the group as a whole announcing he still has a dream about the nation. His dream is that America will finally live up to the words of the Founders: “that all men are created equal.” He also dreams White people and Black people will be able to sit down together as equals and Mississippi will be turned from a hotbed of injustice to a land of freedom. He dreams that in the future, people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by who they are as individuals, and that Alabama will be a place where White and Black children can join hands together. With this dream, King will return to the South. And with this dream and this faith, everyone present can transform the nation into one of brotherhood—as long as everyone works together.

One day American children will be able to sing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” with new meaning, for its lyrics will actually reflect the truth. As a prerequisite for America to become a great nation, freedom must ring across all the majestic landscapes of the United States from New Hampshire to California to Colorado to Tennessee and everywhere in between. And when that happens, “all of God’s children” of all races and faiths will be able to sing the old African American spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

This study guide refers to the transcript published by NPR.