“I Have a Dream:" a Great Speech Reflecting Basic American Values
--Richard E. Vatz
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago to an estimated 250,000 supporters (whenever figures are so round, one may infer that they are at best within 20% either way) at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was to many "the most important speech of the 20th century." I would argue it was not the most important, since many speeches for ill may have been more consequential, but it was the best written and delivered speech in that century for the good of humankind.
It was a brilliant speech which honored traditional American values – it praises Abraham Lincoln and The Emancipation Proclamation; it opposes violence -- and made the case that the United States’ treatment of African-Americans (“Negroes,” per the time period) was indefensibly inconsistent with those values.
It was brilliantly delivered, which makes an enormous difference regarding a speech’s lasting power and influence (pay attention, Governor Bobby Jindal). As I have watched the speech on tape and in DVDs over the years, the powerful cadences -- falling inflections and rising crescendos – are perfect throughout the address for communicating the moment of the speech.
The speech honors America but points out the unequal treatment of black Americans cannot be reconciled with the ostensible values of a great America – “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
It attacks persecution of Black Americans and the horrendous police brutality that was all-too-frequent in that period.
Rev. King realizes the short half-life of speeches and marches must not allow for gradualism or beliefs that the “Negro [just] need[s] to blow off steam…[the nation cannot return to] business as usual.” Indeed, the subsequent passage of The Civil Rights of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was directly attributable to the movement and this speech.
The speech’s most memorable line reflects an inarguable philosophy in a free country: “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.” It ends with an impassioned encomium to freedom, the basis for equality in America, from “the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
A great speech; the greatest of the 20th century. The inequality in 1963 was real, and the solutions were realistic.
But they needed a great leader and a great speech, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided such leadership and the impressive speech of the age.
Professor Vatz teaches Persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)