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Commentary on “I Have a Dream”

Background

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta in 1929 and was educated at Morehouse College (B.A.), Crozer Theological seminary (B.D.), and Boston University (Ph.D.). Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. In addition to his ministerial duties, he became active in the 1950s in the struggle to end discrimination against African- Americans. In those days, many parts of the country, especially the South, had separate schools for whites and blacks, separate water fountains, separate restrooms. Many restaurants and motels denied access to African- Americans—a humiliating frustration for travelers.

In 1954 Dr. King became pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1955- 56 he led a successful boycott against the city’s segregated bus lines. His tactic of using passive resistance (modeled after Gandhi’s nonviolent crusade to free India from British rule) brought him national attention. He founded and worked through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to campaign for desegregation throughout the nation. He paid a high price for his leadership: he was arrested and jailed frequently, he was beaten, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to death threats and assassination attempts.

During these civil rights struggles, there were hundreds of other men and women who did what Dr. King did: they preached, they went to jail, they suffered physical attacks. Out of all these people, Dr. King was seen by the nation as the movement’s leader—as “media magnet and a superstar,” in the words of literary critic Keith D. Miller.

Why Dr. King? “The answer to this question,” says Miller, “can be stated in a

single word: language. King’s unmatched words galvanized blacks and changed the minds of moderate and uncommitted whites…only King could convince middle-of-the-road whites about the meaning of the revolutionary events they were witnessing on their television screens.”

Columnist William Safire of the New York Times says, “Dr. King was the most significant black leader since Frederick Douglass and, like Douglass, owed much of his preeminence to the ability to write with power (as in his 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’) and to speak with passion.” While many of his writings and speeches are still studied today, no piece has attracted more attention than the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, to over 200,000 people who had traveled to the nation’s capital for a peaceful demonstration to demand equal rights for blacks. Historian Diane Ravitch says, “Dr. King’s soaring eloquence and his conscious fusing of religious rhetoric and familiar patriotic symbols conveyed a prophetic and uplifting sense of a world that might yet be. The speech quickly entered the American language and national consciousness as a pithy evocation of the goals of the civil rights movement.”

The electrifying language—still capable, decades later, of tingling the spine and quickening the heart—is the main reason for the speech’s continuing popularity. Unlike most speeches, it is as thrilling to read as to listen to. In a prose anthology containing the speech, Professor Annette T. Rottenberg tells students: “This stirring exhortation …rings out like a church bell with rhythm, imagery, joy, hope, and deep conviction. Don’t just read the words—listen to the music!”

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© 2008, 2005 by Hamilton Gregory—may be reproduced for classroom use with

Public Speaking for College & Career (McGraw-Hill)

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