I have a dream

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Susan Faust

John Llewellyn

Department of Communication

Wake Forest University

Winston-Salem, NC

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the memorable “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people assembled for the march on Washington, DC. Despite the passage of 40 years, this speech has been ranked as the most significant of the last century by a panel of rhetorical scholars. That ranking is presaged by Coretta Scott King’s characterization of the immediate audience response to the speech as “the brief moment the Kingdom of God seemed to have come on earth” (240). Scholars agree that the “I Have a Dream” (IHAD) speech “moved quickly into our national consciousness” (Solomon 66).

Martha Solomon recounts an interview Stephen Oates held with King in which he stated that he “wanted to say something meaningful, something Americans would not soon forget. . . . His [King’s] remarks would be the highlight and the benediction, not only for the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, but for millions of people who would be watching on television or listening by radio” (76). David Garrow, a noted historian of King’s life and activities, describes the result, “Dripping with sweat, King stepped back as the audience gave him a thundering ovation. Although he did not know it, the speech had been the rhetorical achievement of a lifetime, the clarion call that conveyed the moral power of the movement’s cause to the millions who had watched the live national network coverage” (284).

The intent of this paper is to show that in the “moment” of the “I Have a Dream” speech,i King masterfully brought together successful parts of previous speeches to create “the rhetorical achievement of a lifetime.” In speaking across the years and around the country King had crafted ringing phrases and passages that encapsulated the civil rights struggle. He had also heard and read powerful messages from other leaders throughout his lifetime.ii Scholars readily agree IHAD was a composite of King’s earlier speeches. However, we have found no scholarly attempt to specify how and with what resources King wove his actual text in “I Have a Dream.” The purpose of this paper is to establish, as nearly as possible, the rhetorical origins of this famous speech.

Recently, questions have arisen about the originality of Dr. King’s work in the academic sphere of his life.iii It is important to note though, that separate from the academic issues, questions of originality in his sermons, speeches and writings have been addressed by Richard L. Johannesen in “The Ethics of Plagiarism Reconsidered: The Oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Johannesen argues that King, as a product of the black folk preaching tradition where communal invention was the norm, “freely borrowed without acknowledgment from other black preachers and from ‘standard’ sermons that had been in circulation for decades if not [centuries]” (189).

In this tradition the words themselves are perhaps less significant than the quality of their enactment by the speaker. This observation is particularly salient for the “I Have a Dream” speech and also for the thesis of this paper. Reagon states that within “African-American culture, there is a very high standard placed on the moment when one not only makes a solid statement of the song or sermon, but the offering is given one’s own signature. . . . A true master is one who creates an offering with such power and originality that a new direction is established within the genre” (118)iv. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “The eloquence of [the ‘I Have a Dream’] speech flows from King’s command of a rich rhetorical tradition, from his ability to voice his own and his people’s convictions, and from his unremitting struggle to enable his audiences to witness the world as he had come to experience it” (232).

I share the view that Dr. King “borrowed”v from his own work as well as from others’ for the prepared and extemporaneous portions of his “I Have a Dream”vi speech. We intend to show how he wove together parts of his previous speeches; we do not assert that these earlier speeches are necessarily the original sources for all of the language and concepts. In a communal or predominately oral culture such as the civil rights community, documenting the inception of a phrase or concept would be virtually impossible. Scholars have acknowledged the assembly of the speech by identifying instances of the original source of material included in King’s “Dream” speech. Jamieson states that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech “embodied lived ideas forecast in earlier speeches, letters, and essays” (232). Flip Schulke and Penelope Ortner McPhee recount in their book, King Remembered, how King began the “dream” as “[h]e continued improvising, remembering fragments of speeches dating back to 1956. He shared his vision extemporaneously, combining eloquence with spontaneous energy” (155).

Some scholars have observed as Miller does in his book, Voice of Deliverance, that “King often borrowed from himself, moving material freely from speeches to sermons and sermons to speeches. The strikingly similar appeals of his memorable speeches and his sermons enabled him to interchange material through his mix-and-match method of composing” (150). A number of scholars including Miller have already shown that King had borrowed from others’ works such as Reverend Carey’s address at the 1952 Republican National Convention (Miller and Lewis 157-158) and the “I Have a Dream” sequence in “I Have a Dream” from King’s own civil rights speech in Detroit in June of 1963 (Garrow 283). In addition, much has been written on the allusions, metaphors, and rhetoric of King in “I Have a Dream.”vii However, we have yet to find a work that traces the origins of the key terms and concepts in the “I Have a Dream” speech to the works of King himself. We will show how in both portions of the speech, manuscript and extemporaneous,viii King created a “cultural artifact” (Solomon 66) by using successful portions of his previous works.

There is no debate that “I Have a Dream” was King’s crowning rhetorical moment. Scholars have written of the identifiable influences in King’s oratory that include the works of great philosophers, Lincoln, Shakespeare, the Bible and other preachers, including his father and grandfather. But we argue here that equally significant are the previously unexamined “outside” influences on IHAD from the earlier works of King himself. King’s remarks in August 1963 pointed to the frustration and determination of the Negro in the face of racial injustice. As this study shows he had been preparing in some ways to give this speech since 1944 when as a fourteen-year-old high school junior King won an oratory contest with his essay titled, “The Negro and the Constitution.”

We looked at nine published speeches and one unpublished speech delivered by King prior to August 28, 1963. The published speeches were found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. or downloaded from The Martin Luther King, Jr. web site (www.leland-stanford.edu/group/King/Docs/index.html) managed by Stanford University. The unpublished speech was delivered at the College Union Series at Wake Forest College on October 11, 1962, and transcribed from a tape discovered in the University Archives at the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University.ix The full text of King’s remarks is shown in Appendix A.

This study discovered consistent patterns of language and themes across the body of King’s work that culminate in his “I Have a Dream” speech. This consistency is analogous to stump speeches in political campaigns and calls to action in social movements. Indeed, the civil rights movement can be understood as a combination of political campaign and social movement. In this context, “I Have a Dream” could be understood as King’s “inaugural” address – crowning remarks given after some success and in the face of future challenges. So, as in politics and social movements, the repetition of concepts and phrases in subsequent speeches by King is not a failure of imagination but the crafting of a vision.

In analyzing “I Have a Dream” for sentences and phrases from earlier speeches,

we searched for key terms in the ten speech texts entered on the database. We began the process by searching first for key matching phrases such as “momentous decree,” “beacon light of hope,” and “withering injustice.” If matches were located then it was recorded as a match. Then we continued by breaking down the phrases to search for key words such as “momentous” and “decree” to see if other possible adjective and noun combinations might have been used by King to relay the same concept. Finally,

by careful reading we located indirect phrase matches whose meaning was very similar to the language in IHAD even if the surrounding language was not an exact match.

For example, in IHAD King said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” but in another source he states the same message about the characteristics for which the audience must strive by saying, “As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love” (King “Most Durable” 10). For easier comparison, the portions of analyzed texts have been laid out in columns with the IHAD speech in Appendix B.

We do not assume that by citing a previous speech we are establishing that source as the only, or even the original, instance in which that language was used. The focus of this paper is to determine how much of “I Have a Dream” had been delivered previously, where, and by whom. We have not catalogued all of King’s speeches. We have as the basis for examination only those speeches that have been particularly prominent as evidenced by the fact that they have been published. Now we want to turn to the speech itself.

At the very beginning of the speech given on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation King alludes to the Lincoln Memorial as well as evoking the Gettysburg Address. He continues, “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” (IHAD lines 2-3). Both of these key phrases appeared in King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech: “For all men of goodwill, this May 17th decision [of the Supreme Court] came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom” (197). Of course, in “I Have a Dream” “the momentous decree” refers to the Emancipation Proclamation whereas in “Give Us the Ballot” it refers to the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision. In searching for “daybreak” we found exact language in three speeches that similarly denotes the movement from darkness into light: “. . . we will be able to [move/emerge] from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice” (“The American Dream,” 216; “College Lecture Series,” np; “Love, Law and Civil Disobedience,” 53; and, “The Power of Nonviolence,” 15).

King then begins his first use of repetition in the speech with “One hundred years later . . .” (IHAD line 4) where he describes the continuing negative situation for the Negro. It was in his award-winning essay, “The Negro and the Constitution,” in 1944 that King began with an eloquent chronological perspective that started with the bringing of Negroes to America and ended with discussing of the United States Constitution and its impact on the current times of the 1940s. It is in this work that King, as a junior in high school, wrote the passage, “Black American still wears chains” (110) which bears a similarity to his IHAD line: “. . . the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by . . . the chains of discrimination” (line 5).

King then moves into the “check” metaphor. This metaphor was not chosen lightly. In the words of Coretta Scott King:

In our hotel suite Martin began revising his speech, trying to condense it to the eight minutes that had been allotted to him. He worked on it all night . . . . In Detroit he had spoken about his dream of a free united land, but in view of the shortness of the time given him, he decided against using that theme. Instead he planned to speak from the theme of America issuing the Negro a bad check. . . . (236)

The ideas following the “check” metaphor are consistent with King’s longtime message. He describes segregation, racial justice, racial injustice, and brotherhood by making each concept come alive through the use of concrete descriptors such as “the desolate valley of segregation,” “sunlit path of racial justice,” “the quicksand of racial injustice,” “the solid rock of brotherhood”. King uses as evidence to support the promise implied in the “check” metaphor the guarantee to all men of “the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (IHAD line 11). This passage is a direct match, of course, with the Declaration of Independence as well as from his lecture at Wake Forest where he used the complete “We hold these truths” passage of the historical document (np).

After dismissing the “now is NOT the time” counterargument presented often by defenders of segregation, King begins his call for action and change with “Now IS the time”x (line 19) in IHAD. King distinguishes the moral ways -- good and bad -- that men and women can break down the barriers of oppression and discrimination. The indirect match between IHAD and “The American Dream” holds the common word “quicksand” but carries the ideological description further. In IHAD King says, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (line 21) while in “The American Dream,” King states, “They need not sink in to the quicksand of hatred. Standing on the high ground . . .” (214). Both messages denote the means “quicksand” and the moral “solid ground.”

King’s message of nonviolence stands out as he says, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds” (IHAD line 30). Similarly,

in the College Union Lecture Series speech King presents the ends versus means structure in advocating nonviolent direct action when he says in 1962, “[T]his approach also has the advantage of helping the individual to struggle, to secure moral ends through moral means” (np). An indirect phrase match was discovered to hold the same conceptual message concerning means and ends in “Give Us the Ballot” when King says, “ . . . we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens” (np).

He continues his nonviolent direct action argument, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. 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” (IHAD lines 31-34). It is interesting to note the parallels when examining the messages given on separate occasions where King says, “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love” (“Most Durable” 10; “Paul’s Letter” np); “We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter . . . . We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force” (Give Us the Ballot, 199) and “. . . we must say even to those that would use violence to stop us we will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force” (College Lecture Series np). King describes both the reason and the method in terms of “creative protest” in the two following matches: in describing the reason, King uses the phrase,

“ . . . we must continue to engage in creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized” (“The American Dream” 212-213) and in describing the nonviolent direct action method of the student movement, King uses the phrase in praising the actions of the students and describes their action as taking “our deep groans and passionate yearnings for freedom, and filtered them in their own tender souls, and fashioned them into a creative protest which is an epic known all over our nation” (Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience 45).

An indirect match is seen as King works to unite a possibly divided, and maybe alienated, white audience. Up until this point in the speech King has called for change to include black people without alluding to the inclusion of the Whites in the audience. It is here that King draws the audience together as a whole when he states, “ . . . 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” (line 35). King makes this same rhetorical move in “The American Dream” speech but on a higher institutional level when he recalls a visit to India and seeing the “millions of people going to bed hungry at night” (209), he calls for action “because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India – with the destiny of every other nation” (210).

Miller and Lewis show the parallels in form and content between “The Negro and the Constitution” and “I Have a Dream” (lines 40-44):
The Negro and the Constitution

We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance.

We cannot have a healthy nation with one tenth of the people. . . harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines. . .

We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down. . . that it is almost forced into . . . crime.

We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.

We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods.

I Have a Dream
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . .

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We cannot be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood . . . by signs saying ‘For Whites Only.’

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote. . . .

No, we. . . will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (155-156)
Within this language of the “We can never be satisfied” sequence of IHAD we find two additional links to “The Negro and the Constitution.” It is in his 1944 essay when King is describing how society has not changed, he uses as an example the famous opera singer Marian Anderson and her experiences of being barred from singing at Constitution Hall in 1939. Later she was invited to sing on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial with cabinet members and dignitaries surrounding her. King continued to contrast what she could do and what she was not allowed to do. He states of her performing at the Lincoln Memorial, “That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America” (110). This passages may not seem as eloquent as IHAD but it certainly sends a similar message at points: “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” (np). (In yet another of the versions of IHAD, King continues in the next few sentences, “’Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment’” (110). Again, this version can be compared to King’s words in IHAD, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only’” [np].)

King made frequent and effective use of cultural capital:

One of King’s foremost rhetorical strategies was to locate his appeal within the context of cherished religious, cultural, and patriotic traditions. . . . [King] frequently quoted the Old Testament and John Donne, Paul and Socrates, Aquinas and Emerson, Shakespeare and Jefferson, hymn-writers and Paul Tillich. (Miller 1986, 249)

We “hear” Lincoln, we “hear” The Declaration of Independence,” we “hear” Shakespeare, and we “hear” Amos. Religious allusions in “I Have a Dream” are abundant. For example, Martha Solomon notes, “’The desolate valley of segregation’ echoes biblical references to the ‘valley of death’; ‘the captivity’ and enslavement of blacks parallels that of the chosen people; and ‘justice . . . like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ is drawn from Amos 5:24” (74). It is no surprise that King as a Southern African-American Baptist preacher uses Biblical quotations throughout his sermons and speeches. He even uses the Amos quotation in a number of prominent addresses: “The Power of Nonviolence,” “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” and the “College Lecture Series.”

King reflects on the “trials and tribulations” of the group by describing their journey from “narrow jail cells” and from places “where [their] quest for freedom left [them] battered by the storm of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” (lines 45-47). In commending the audience for participating in “creative suffering,” he ends the previous description of persecution with “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive" (lines 48-49). This challenge is not new to King’s work; in “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” King defines suffering as a powerful social force that both violent and nonviolent camps agree upon (47-49). King goes on to say though that the violent inflict suffering on others while the nonviolent “suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation” (47).

Then King gives the audience for IHAD their “marching orders” by instructing them to return to the South knowing “that somehow this situation can, and will be changed.” He says, “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 the northern cities. . .” (line 50). This instruction is similar in technique to the one King used in “Give Us the Ballot” when he said, “Go back to your homes in the Southland to that faith, with that faith today. Go back to Philadelphia, to New York, to Detroit and Chicago with that faith today”xi (np).

The spontaneous initiation of King’s most famous passage in all his oratory follows (Miller Voice 144). The elucidation of King’s dream began, as described by Coretta Scott King, when “he got to the rhythmic part of demanding freedom now, and wanting jobs now, the crowd caught the timing and shouted now in a cadence. Their response lifted Martin in a surge of emotion to new heights of inspiration. Abandoning his written speech, forgetting time, he spoke from his heart, his voice soaring magnificiently out over that great crowd and over to all the world” (239).xii King had written a speech that dwelled on historical injustices suffered by Blacks over the centuries. But at the moment of delivery “looking out over the sea of expectant white and black faces, he changed his mind, and spoke from his heart the words for which he is best remembered: ‘I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream’” (Haskins 81-82). Garrow sets the scene:
The program was well along before King’s turn came to speak, and he moved forward carrying his prepared text. ‘I started out reading the speech,’ he recalled in a private interview three months later, and then, ‘just all of a sudden – the audience response was wonderful that day – and all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used – I’d used it many times before, that thing about ‘I Have a Dream’ – and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why, I hadn’t thought about it before the speech.’ So he dispensed with the prepared text and went on extemporaneously. He had used the same peroration previously – at a mass meeting in Birmingham in early April, and in a speech at Detroit’s huge civil rights rally in June. . . . (283)
In addition to using the “dream” sequence in Birmingham and Detroit, it was in an address given at a public meeting of the Charlotte, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP in 1960. In his speech “The Negro and the American Dream,” King observed:

in a real sense America is essentially a dream – a dream yet unfulfilled.

It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colors, and creeds will live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.xiii
King begins the “I have a dream” portion of the speech by invoking the “We hold these truths” part of the Declaration of Independence that he presented earlier in the prepared section of IHAD. He then begins to offer very descriptive yet pointed examples of what visions he saw in his dream. He begins with the example of a joining of “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners” gathering at the “table of brotherhood” in the “red hills of Georgia” (IHAD line 55). King had used this geographical description of Georgia previously in his “The American Dream” speech when he told of the roots of one of the “world’s greatest singers,” Roland Hayes. King began Hayes’ chronology with his familiar rhetorical device that linked things or people with geographical sites when he stated that Hayes was, “From the red hills of Gordon County, Georgia, from an iron foundry at Chattanooga, Tennessee, . . .” (212).

King recounts from IHAD his wish that his 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” (line 57). In Dr. King’s lecture at Wake Forest College, he summarized the racial climate of the nation with three categories: extreme optimism, extreme pessimism and the realistic position. Saying that no one of the three outlooks was accurate in and of itself, he continued, “It is one of the ironies of history that in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, we're still arguing over the question of whether the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character” (College Lecture Series np).

At the end of King’s recounting of his ‘dream,’ he lets us know of the possible fulfillment of the dream through hope and faith: “With this faith we will be able to hew out 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” (IHAD lines 64-65). Then with parallel infinitive forms he tells us of the activities we will be able to do together: work, pray, struggle, and go to jail. In 1962 near the end of his address at Wake Forest College, King began with a similar litany about faith in the future in that familiar repetitious phrase, “With this faith.” He began, “With this faith we can go out and adjourn the councils of despair and thereby bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we’ll be able to rise from the fatigue of hopelessness to the buoyancy of hope. And we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our Southland into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (np).

According to Keith Miller, King ended his speech by “borrowing, adjusting, and adding to the conclusion of a speech that black pastor Archibald Carey gave at the 1952 Republican Convention” (157). This excerpt is from Carey’s address:

“We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans:
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!
That’s exactly what we mean – from every mountainside, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia – let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for . . . the disinherited of all the earth – may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING! (157)
Again, according to Miller, the following are the memorable and parallel passages delivered so passionately and eloquently by King in “I Have a Dream” (lines 67-76):

“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 Pilgrims’ pride. From every mountainside Let freedom ring!
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 Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring! (157)
King’s adjectives describing the types of geographical forms serve to make this passage more nearly his own. It was in “Give Us the Ballot” that King had an opportunity to try some of these pairs out even if not in a geographical sense. It is in this speech that King takes a Biblical stance in talking about justice by saying that even after one has “crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil, and gigantic mountains of opposition” (“Give Us the Ballot” np).

At the closing of “I Have a Dream,” King draws us together by pairing our “opposites” to show consolidation in conquering the racial issues in the nation. He continues the allusion of freedom ringing and describes “all of God’s children,” ending with a Negro spiritual familiar to all in the audience. King begins:

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to 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 to sing in the words of the Old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ (line 77)xiv
King ended his “The American Dream” speech and his lecture at Wake Forest with the same technique of drawing the community together, culminating with the same Negro spiritual’s words, “Free at last!:”xv

This will be the day when the American dream is a reality. This will be the day when we will have gone that additional distance. This will be the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands right here in this nation and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God A-mighty, We're free at last!’ (College Lecture Series np)

In this analysis we found that King, in the true fashion of stump speaking, adapted and refined his message from a consistent and extensive corpus of his earlier works and those of other civil rights leaders and preachers. During the manuscript and extemporaneous portions of IHAD he drew upon ideas and language that had proven successful in reaching earlier audiences. Ironically, King’s central invention, the metaphor of the check returned for “insufficient funds” fails as a memorable synecdoche for this speech; it is King’s replay of Archibald Carey’s message that is IHAD’s most powerful passage and enduring legacy in the public mind. Critics have hailed “I Have a Dream” as a speech of a lifetime; this study reveals that, while that claim may well be true, this speech is also the work of a lifetime. It represents the distillation of the best messages by King – and others -- throughout the civil rights era.


i The following is one line that King omitted from his delivery that was included in the original manuscript: “This offense we share mounted to storm the battlements of injustice must be carried forth by a biracial army.”

ii See Keith D. Miller’s dissertation, “The Influence of a Liberal Homiletic Tradition on ‘Strength to Love’ by Martin Luther King, Jr.,” where the author traces the influences of others on King’s work. Miller was a doctoral student at Texas Christian University when his dissertation was published in 1984 by University Microfilms International in Ann Arbor.

iii Questions about King plagiarizing in his dissertation and graduate school papers have been put forward. In the book chapter titled “’I Have a Dream’: The Performance of Theology Fused with the Power of Orality” in Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse edited by Calloway-Thomas and Lucaites, John Patton states, King “completed what we now know to be a substantially flawed doctoral dissertation” (107). David Garrow states in Bearing the Cross, “A lengthy published study by Professor Ira Zepp has identified a series of King passages that reflect “exact reproduction or paraphrasing” from other works (112).

iv Italics those of the author.

v Term used by Keith Miller in his extensive writings about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of others’ works.

vi According to Elaine Hall, Reference Librarian at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social and Nonviolent Change, there are three versions of the “I Have a Dream” speech. We have used a version that has been checked against the videotape so as to ensure accuracy of the language.

vii For good examples you can consult the work of Solomon.

viii We argue that the speech is not extemporaneous in the sense of the definition but, in fact, is a “rehearsed” extemporaneous speech because it has been previously delivered.

ix We are grateful to the University Archivist John Woodard for his help in locating this audiotape.

The published speeches were: “The Negro and the Constitution” (April 13, 1944), “The Most Durable Power” (November 6, 1956), “The Power of Nonviolence” (June 4, 1957), “Speech Before the Youth March for Integrated Schools” (April 18, 1959), and “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” (November 16, 1961). The web site speeches were “Paul’s Letter To American Christians” (November 4, 1956), “Rediscovering Lost Values” (February 28, 1954), “Give Us the Ballot” (May 17, 1957).and “March on Washington” (August 28, 1963). The unpublished speech was delivered by Dr. King at the College Union Lecture Series at Wake Forest College on October 11, 1962; one of the authors transcribed the tape.

x Emphasis added by author.

xi This transcribed version of “Give Us the Ballot” was selected from “The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers” website. The text is different from that printed in Testament which we did not use.

xii Italics are those of Mrs. King.

xiii In John Patton’s book chapter,“’I Have a Dream’: The Performance of Theology Fused with the Power of Orality,” he cites this passage from King’s address given to the Branch Chapter of the NAACP in Charlotte, NC on September 25, 1960.

xiv The authors have also seen “A-Mighty” used in some “I Have a Dream” texts.

xv In “The American Dream” there are slight word changes. For example, “Catholics and Protestants” instead of “Protestants and Catholics.”

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