THE BLOG
08/28/2013 09:12 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Why Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech Is the Greatest Speech of the 20th Century: Line by Line Analysis

Getty

Excerpt from "Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events"

One of the greatest thrills of writing a book on the 20 most inspiring speeches of The 20th Century was to sit down and actually go through "I Have A Dream," word by word, and attempt to explain why it mesmerized 250,000 and changed the course of American history. What did Dr. King do that mere mortal speakers don't?

I remember analyzing the speech on a flight from LA to NY and feeling a bit uncomfortable about it as, more than once, I was literally moved to tears, just by the beauty, depth and soul of the words themselves. Martin Luther King, I realized, moved his people and the nation not only by being one of our most gloriously charismatic speakers, but because he was one of America's greatest speechwriters.

And his speechwriting touched a young politician so profoundly that he ended up writing what has to be regarded as the 2nd most historically significant speech by an African-American in the exact length as Dr. King's masterpiece. Both "I Have A Dream" and Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote that launched his successful campaign for president, out of nowhere, were 16 minutes and 11 seconds long!

"I Have A Dream" is a flawless speech and on this momentous 50th Anniversary, it is my pleasure to share the full analysis from my book, Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events.

Analysis: The "I Have A Dream" Speech of Dr. Martin Luther King

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

In 1963, and to this day, many people believe that Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was the greatest speech of the nineteenth century, if not the greatest speech ever given. Notice how Dr. King begins what many believe is the greatest speech of the twentieth century as Lincoln did by setting the speech in time. Using Lincoln's life and work as the foundation for his speech gives it immediate credibility. Note, too, the extraordinary and vivd use of visual imagery. In this paragraph alone you'll find six such images: a symbolic shadow, a beacon light, seared in flames, withering injustice, joyous daybreak and long night of captivity.

_____________________________________________________

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Here, the words in the corners of American society add visual dimension to our idea of languishing. The phrase an exile in his own land is a direct and poignant allusion to the biblical "stranger in a strange land," while the repetition of the phrase one hundred years later hammers home just how critical the situation is. ____________________________________________________

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We come now to the metaphor-that of an unpaid debt-that drives one of the basic themes of this speech.

____________________________________________________

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,

Having cleverly put the Founding Fathers in the role of debtors and aroused our sympathies for the holders of that debt, King-by inserting the simple word sacred -has elevated the Founding Fathers' promissory note to a spiritual, not just a legal, obligation.

____________________________________________________

America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

King now takes this imagery a step further. Not only is it a debt; it's a debt that has been more than defaulted on. America has tried to pull the wool over the eyes of blacks, and passed a bad check. To anyone who ever struggled over money-and no doubt there were some in his audience-the image of an "NSF" check hit home.
____________________________________________________

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Look how he rips the carpet out from under the two most obvious objections to his point (always better to answer critics before they can attack) and notice how elegantly he uses strong visual imagery to diminish their argument.
____________________________________________________

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

The counter point of the fierce urgency of now with the luxury of cooling off and the tranquilizing drug of gradualism makes both a visual and ironic statement.
____________________________________________________

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

The strong visual imagery continue - five vivid word pictures in this paragraph alone.
____________________________________________________

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. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And 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. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

As King continues, along with Shakespearean allusions, he makes the most of the images of heat with nuanced references to the violence of earlier summers and the potential for future eruptions.
____________________________________________________

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

Suddenly, in these next sentences, King shifts gears. Speaking directly to the blacks in the audience, he issues a call for dignity and discipline, not violence.
____________________________________________________

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

Invoking soul force instead of physical force, Dr. King now addresses those among them who have been calling for violence. He compliments them on their marvelous new militancy, and, true to the spirit of the March, reminds them that all white people are not their enemy and that both communities' destinies are intertwined.
____________________________________________________

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Using the age-old and very effective technique of asking a question, Dr. King answers it with specific demands, providing a counterpoint to the more general imagery that precedes it. Nevertheless, he never lets go of the rhythm that builds the emotion in his speech. Notice how he uses six parallel sentences in a row (never be satisfied or cannot be satisfied) to hammer the point home.
____________________________________________________

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

Remarkably, this was the very last line that came from Dr. King's prepared text. From this point on, he did not look at his speech, but-master orator that he was-allowed the emotion and inspiration of the moment to carry him as he delivers the rest of this speech extemporaneously. Read the following paragraphs carefully and you will see that the tone becomes more personal and less intellectual, more heartfelt and less academic and, yes, vastly more spiritual.
____________________________________________________

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

One of the most important parts of any speech is the moment where the speaker "identifies" with the audience and shows either that he is one of them or that he truly understands them and speaks for them. Usually this comes toward the beginning of the speech, but Reverend King didn't need to do that; his audience already identified with him. Instead, he uses this device toward the end of his speech to launch his "call to action".
____________________________________________________

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,

Unearned suffering may be redemptive, but King knows he must bring his audience back to their earthly goals. Using short phrases and repeating them, he builds to a crescendo (the shorter the phrase, the easier it is to build rhythm; the more the repetition, the greater the emotion). Interestingly, Dr. King, in his prepared text, had planned to say, "And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction," but decided instead to go with this much more positive call to action. Six times he repeats the phrase go back.
____________________________________________________

I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

Amazingly, as he explains in his autobiography, the word dream and the entire I have a dream theme were not in his prepared text. Spontaneously, he says, he decided to go back to a theme he had used in Detroit two months earlier, and, without notes, went where it took him. Without the I have a dream theme, the speech, as written, was terrific, but the repetition of this theme-a theme that everyone could immediately relate to-gave the speech a dimension that transcended time and place.
____________________________________________________

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

Here, in the very first sentence after announcing the theme, Dr. King continues to broaden the appeal of the speech to include all people, not only the blacks in the audience. With this single sentence he tells the rest of America that he and his followers believe in the same things as they do, and that there is no reason to fear.
____________________________________________________

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

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

Repeating one of the most inspirational themes of any speech eight times, the speech really starts to sing.
____________________________________________________

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

His years as a preacher came to the forefront here. How can anyone not be moved by such perfect cadence, imagery, and power?
____________________________________________________

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

King now steps back a bit, perhaps to rest before building to another, even higher crescendo. Although he still uses repetition, the sentences are longer, less rhythmic, but the imagery is still strong. Reinforcing the spiritual tone, he repeats the word faith to add momentum, and in the last sentence, pulls out the stops with five successive uses of the word together that kick the speech into virtual overdrive.
____________________________________________________

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

As he moves toward the final crescendo, he brilliantly pulls at our patriotic heartstrings, evoking the very foundations of the country to make his point. No one, no matter how jaded, could argue with the hope of these two sentences.
____________________________________________________

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Having grabbed our minds and touched our souls, Martin Luther King Jr., takes us step by step through America in a second crescendo that, I believe, is unmatched in the history of public oratory!

copyright, Richard Greene, 2002
Comments to Richard@WordsThatShookTheWorld.com