Annually, throughout the month of February, known as Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice punctuates the airwaves like a public-service announcement, delivering his "I Have a Dream' speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.
What listeners usually hear is the speech's rousing "Let freedom ring!" finale, which begins with King's invocation of the patriotic hymn "America" and ends with the vision of
the day when alt 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!"
Although this climax receives the most airplay and seems to be most often included in film documentaries, it is the preceding "Dream" sequence that is most often quoted. King told a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial that "even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
DREAMS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
The rhetorical flourish that followed, in which he wished that his 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," was but an abbreviated portrayal of his vision of the Beloved Community.
Three years earlier, in a speech he delivered on the golden anniversary of the National Urban League and which appeared in the December 1960 issue of the YWCA Magazine, he presented his most succinct conception of the dream, as follows:
The dream is one of equality of
opportunity, of privilege and
property widely distributed; a
dream of a land where men will
not take necessities from the
many to give luxuries to the
few; a dream of a land where
men do not argue that the color
of a man's skin determines the
content of his character; a
dream of a place where all our
gifts and resources are held not
for ourselves alone but as
instruments of service for the
rest of humanity; the dream of
a country where every man will
respect the dignity and worth
of all human personality and
men will dare to live together
as brothers--that is the dream.
Whenever it is fulfilled, we will
emerge from the bleak and desolate
midnight of man's inhumanity
to man into the bright
and glowing daybreak of freedom
and justice for all of God's
King's dream was "no private vision, nothing esoteric," observes biographer William Robert Miller in Martin Luther King, Jr: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World (1968). Rather, it was "a personalized translation of the American heritage taught to every schoolboy, forged anew in a context of the Negro experience."
The words of the speech, which invoked the patriotic symbolism of the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and Emancipation Proclamation, "came right out of elementary school civics," Miller concludes. Indeed, as King stated in the Washington speech and asserted several years later, in the May 1968 issue of Negro History Bulletin,
It is a dream of a land
where men of all races,
of all nationalities and
of all creeds can live
together as brothers.
The substance of the
dream is expressed in
these sublime words,
words lifted to cosmic
proportions: "We hold
these truths to be self-evident--that
are created with …