For this month’s Annotations, we’ve taken Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech and provided a scholarly analysis of its foundations and inspirations. The religious, political, historical and cultural foundations of the discourse are very varied. and have been read as whining, a call to action, and literature. While the speech itself has been used (and sometimes abused) to call for a “colorblind” country, its power is only heightened by knowing its rhetorical and intellectual background.
Five-twenty years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope for millions of black slaves who had been burned in the flames of devastating injustice. It came as a joyful dawn to end the long night of captivity.
But a hundred years later, we have to face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. A hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly paralyzed by the handcuffs of segregation and the chains of discrimination. A hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the middle of a vast ocean of material prosperity. A hundred years later, the Negro still languishes in the recesses of American society and finds himself exiled in his own country. We have therefore come here today to dramatize a terrible situation.
In a sense, we came to the nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic penned the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note that every American was to inherit. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is evident today that America has defaulted on this promissory note with respect to its citizens of color. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America gave the black people an NSF check that came back with the words “insufficient funds”. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are not enough funds in this nation’s great coffers of opportunity. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us on demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this sacred place to remind America the fierce urgency of now. Now is not the time to indulge in the luxury of cooling off or taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to move from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunny path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to move our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and underestimate the determination of the Negro. This scorching summer of rightful nigger discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those hoping that the niggers needed a vent and now will be satisfied will have a rude awakening if the nation gets back to business as usual. There will be no rest or tranquility in America until the Negro has obtained his rights of citizenship. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold that leads to the courthouse. In the process of earning our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongdoing. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must always wage our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not let our creative protest escalate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of the encounter between physical strength and soul strength. the wonderful new militancy that engulfed the black community should not cause us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied to ours and that their freedom is inextricably linked to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must promise that we will walk ahead. We cannot go back. There are those who ask civil rights supporters, “When will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied until our bodies, weighed down by the fatigue of the journey, can lodge in the motels of the roads and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a small ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied until a Negro in Mississippi can vote and a Negro in New York thinks he has nothing to vote for. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice flows like waters and justice like a mighty river.
I remember that some of you came here after great trials and tribulations. Some of you are fresh out of tight cells. Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom has left you battered by the storms of persecution and shaken by the winds of police brutality. You have been veterans of creative suffering. Keep working with the faith that undeserved suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let’s not wallow in the valley of despair.
I tell you today, my friends, that despite the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. He is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I dream that one day this nation will rise up and live the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that a day in the red hills of georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at a fraternity table.
I dream that one day the very state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
Today I have a dream.
I dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are currently dripping with words of interposition and rescission, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls can join hands to little white boys and white girls and walk together like sisters and brothers.
Today I have a dream.
I have a dream that one day every valley will be exaltedevery hill and every mountain will be brought down, the broken places will be leveled, and the crooked places will be straightened, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh together will see it.
It is our hope. It is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith, we can carve out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the resounding discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.. With this faith, we can work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
It will be the day when all of God’s children can sing with new meaning, “My country is you, sweet land of freedom, it is you that I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of pride of the pilgrim, from all the mountains, let freedom resound.
And if America is to be a great nation, it must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious heights of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the rising Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowy Colorado Rockies!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of the Mississippi. Let freedom ring from every mountain.
When we ring freedom, when we ring it from every town and hamlet, from every state and every city, we can hasten that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics can join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Finally free! finally free! Thanks to Almighty God, we are finally free!
For dynamic annotations of this speech and other iconic works, see JSTOR Labs Understanding Series.