“I have a dream”
These iconic words, at the climax of Dr. King’s 1963 speech, represented a triumph both in the struggle for the African-American Civil Rights Movement and in the field of rhetoric. Delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington movement, this speech is a perfect example of the power of nonviolent civil disobedience that MLK both believed in and practiced. The speech had a very large impact on both the audience and U.S. politicians, pressuring the Kennedy administration to accelerate civil rights legislation.
Universally agreed as a masterwork of rhetoric, King’s speech references the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the United States Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. A long-time minister, Dr. King was an exceptional public speaker. Repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” was nowhere in the original transcript. Legend has it that Dr. King began preaching one of the most famous phrases in the American language after an audience member shouted “tell them about the dream, Martin!”
This speech is a great place to start when analyzing speech construction. It has many elements of a great speech: meaningful context (taking place 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and in front of the Lincoln Memorial), a simple yet powerful message (African-Americans deserve to be treated as equals), and a memorable climax (“I have a dream”).