The setting for the speech was magnificent, and appropriately rich with patriotic symbols. The heart of the nation’s capital is the Mall, a broad expanse of grass and trees stretching 2.25 miles from the Capitol (home of the U.S. Congress) westward to the Lincoln Memorial. In between these two landmarks is the Washington Monument, immediately north of which is the White House. Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and looked out at the
crowd that had gathered on both sides of the Reflecting Pool, a long rectangle of water that reflected the Washington Monument to Dr. King’s eyes. The crowd, from its vantage point, had a view of Dr. King underneath the magisterial statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.
Dr. King had two audiences, both of which he kept in mind:
The more than 200,000 marchers in front of him, including an estimated 40,000 whites, whose presence he noted (paragraph 9).
The millions who were watching on television (beginning at about 3:30 p.m.). The three major networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—had preempted afternoon soap operas to televise the speech live.
From reading the speech and knowing the circumstances surrounding the March on Washington, we can see that Dr. King had many purposes.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln (it was fitting that the speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial)
To put pressure on Congress to pass a civil rights bill outlawing discrimination in restaurants, bus stations, and motels (the bill had been proposed two months earlier by President Kennedy but its passage by Congress was uncertain)
To inform white listeners of the continuing denial of full rights for blacks and to make them vicariously feel the emotional and physical pain experienced by blacks
To persuade American citizens that the American Dream—liberty and justice for all—can become a reality
To give solace and hope to blacks who felt despair over their plight
To inspire blacks (and their white allies) to continue struggling for equal rights
To persuade civil rights campaigners to persist in their crusade without resorting to hatred and violence
Was the speech successful in reaching its goals? Judging by the roar of approval from the audience, one can say that Dr. King succeeded in one of his immediate goals—bolstering the spirits of the people who had marched on Washington. As for long-term impact, the speech has been viewed by many observers as the most important single event in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, helping to persuade the white majority to grant equal rights to all Americans. “The televised address did more to advance the cause of civil rights than did any other speech or demonstration,” says Safire. One of the short-term goals was met the following summer when the Civil Rights Bill was passed by Congress and signed into law on July 2, 1964.
© 2008, 2005 by Hamilton Gregory—may be reproduced for classroom use with
Public Speaking for College & Career (McGraw-Hill)