I Have a Dream Speech


Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I Have a Dream Speech Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream Speech. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most iconic and influential leaders in the American civil rights movement. Born in Atlanta to a middle-class family and raised near Atlanta’s “Black Wall Street,” King’s father and grandfather before him were Baptist preachers. Even though King was part of a comfortable and tight-knit community, he grew up amid the injustices of segregation. Before entering Morehouse College as an undergraduate, King spent time up North, where he was first exposed to integrated churches and restaurants. Returning home to complete his studies in the South, King graduated from college in 1948 and entered the ministry at his father’s suggestion. He attended a seminary in Pennsylvania and completed his doctorate at Boston University. In Boston, King met and married Coretta Scott, and the two of them returned to Scott’s native Alabama to begin a family. In 1955, King—a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery—was chosen to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Having studied nonviolent resistance during his time at seminary, King led his fellow Alabamians in acts of civil disobedience that eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s bus system. Following the success of the boycotts, King became a renowned and respected civil rights leader. His participation in sit-ins in Atlanta and Birmingham led to his being arrested multiple times—but King always preached nonviolence to those who looked to him as an example of how to fight racism. Following his release from the Birmingham jail and his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his direct influence on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King continued to lead nonviolent demonstrations, such as the march from Selma to Montgomery—but as progress stalled, radical factions of the civil rights and Black Power movements began to doubt the uses of nonviolence. King himself admitted to mounting frustrations with going to jail repeatedly and “living every day under the threat of death.” In 1968, on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.
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Historical Context of I Have a Dream Speech

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to an audience of over 250,000 people at the March on Washington in August of 1963. The march was one of the largest civil rights rallies in American history, and it came at a crucial moment in the decades-long struggle for civil rights. The successes of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956 and the lunch counter sit-ins across America of the early 1960s had directly resulted in the passages of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960—but segregation still persisted in America, and voting rights for minorities were still under attack, especially in the South. The speech was historically significant because it put political pressure on the administration of then-president John F. Kennedy to continue advancing civil rights legislation. The speech also brought King to greater international attention—he was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine later in 1963, and, in 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech is widely regarded as a masterpiece of rhetoric and a vital historical document.  

Other Books Related to I Have a Dream Speech

“I Have a Dream” is a sophisticated, hyper-referential speech that makes allusions to patriotic songs, political addresses, the speeches of other civil rights activists, the Bible, and even Shakespeare’s Richard III. King’s speech has also drawn comparisons to speeches delivered by other civil rights activists such as Archibald Carey Jr. and Prathia Hall—the repeated refrains of “let freedom ring” and “I have a dream” weren’t necessarily King’s own original writing, but rather the repurposing and repatterning of rhetorical devices from other activists’ earlier work. King quotes specific passages from the Bible, drawing on the language used in the books of Isaiah, Amos, and Galatians. By mixing the language of Biblical prophets with the lyrics of patriotic songs, the words of other activists, and the sentence structures of Shakespearean drama, King creates a pastiche of multiple rhetorical styles, historical periods, and modes of pathos and persuasion.
Key Facts about I Have a Dream Speech
  • Full Title: “I Have a Dream”
  • When Written: Early 1960s
  • When Published: King delivered versions of “I Have a Dream” in North Carolina in 1962 and in Detroit in June of 1963 before delivering the definitive version of the speech at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963
  • Literary Period: civil rights movement
  • Genre: Speech, religious sermon
  • Climax: King begins calling for freedom to ring out across America, from the “mighty mountains of New York” to the “molehill[s] of Mississippi”
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for I Have a Dream Speech

Ringing Into the Future. On August 28th, 2013—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—thousands of people gathered on the mall in Washington D.C. where King delivered his iconic speech to celebrate and commemorate the occasion. President Barack Obama spoke at the gathering. Obama paid homage to King while reminding those in attendance that King’s dream was still not yet complete, and that the work of justice and anti-racism is complex and ongoing.