“I Have a Dream” Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The views expressed in this booklet are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Library of Congress.
1. “I Have a Dream” Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. (August 28, 1963)
Added to the National Registry: 2002
Essay by Gregory Alan Barnes (guest post)*
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was late afternoon, on a warm August day, as Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a crowd of
more than 250,000 onlookers at the March on Washington to deliver his now famous “I have a
Dream” speech.
Many who gathered in the crowd that day were tired from the long train and bus rides that
brought them from the Deep South and places out west. Others were simply exhausted from the
long list of speakers that preceded Dr. King.
Serving as the program’s anchor, it was up to Dr. King to take what could only be described as
an increasingly weary crowd and replenish it with infectious energy. It was a task that Dr. King
was fully prepared to handle.
His remarks began with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation and its promise of
freedom. It was an appropriate beginning considering Dr. King was standing in the shadow of
the Lincoln Memorial and the march was occurring 100 years after its signing.
Reflecting on the century old decree, Dr. King expressed the general enthusiasm with which it
was originally received but went on to note that “one hundred years later, the Negro is still not
free” due to a societal crippling by the “manacles of segregation and the chains of
From there, Dr. King quickly turned to a discussion of the US Constitution and Declaration of
Independence. According to King, these sacred documents constituted a “promissory note”
imbued with rights and privileges to which every American was to fall heir. In the case of the
Negro people, however, King proclaimed that America had defaulted on this obligation, and
provided a “bad check” that had come back marked “insufficient funds.”
2. Throughout the remainder of Dr. King’s prepared remarks, he reiterated the importance of
continuing the struggle for justice and equality on behalf of “all of God’s children.” He also
cautioned his fellow marchers against satisfying their “thirst for freedom by drinking from the
cup of bitterness and hatred”--noting that the quest for justice couldn’t be built on a platform of
“wrongful deeds.”
Had Dr. King’s speech ended there it would have been great, but an unexpected turn of events
help make it exceptional.
As Dr. King was encouraging his cohorts to return to their communities to continue the fight for
equality, he heard a voice from just offstage. It was his good friend, Mahalia Jackson, who
shouted out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Dr. King swiftly rose to the occasion.
He provided an improvisational account of an America free of racial intolerance. A dream where
racially colorblind communities could break bread together, and little children of different ages
and races would be free to play with one another. For Dr. King, this vision was “deeply rooted
in the American dream.”
By all accounts, Dr. King’s speech was considered a tremendous success. It led to his being
named “Man of the Year” by “Time” magazine later that year, and the receipt of the Nobel Peace
Prize the following year. The speech also played a pivotal role in the continued struggle for civil
Just two months prior to the march, the United States Congress had introduced President
Kennedy’s civil rights legislation. At the time of its introduction, the prospects for the
legislation’s passage were far from certain. An ill-received speech would only further
complicate matters. In particular, a lackluster performance could stall momentum; while an
overly passionate performance could have inspired unwanted rioting. Dr. King was able to
“thread the needle” perfectly, in a manner that convinced President Kennedy to continue to press
forward with his civil rights agenda.
Few orators could have pulled off such a delicate balancing act, but relying on his educational
upbringing at Morehouse College, teachings attained in seminary and experience in the pulpit,
Dr. King crafted a speech that not only stirred a generation of social change agents of the ‘60s, it
has continued to inspire future generations to come.
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by adding it to
the National Recording Registry. A fitting tribute where the dream continues to live on.
Gregory Alan Barnes currently serves as General Counsel to the Digital Media Association
(“DiMA”) and writes extensively on the topic of intellectual property law and policy. He holds a
Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard University, a Juris Doctorate from Washington
University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Morehouse College.
3. *The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Library
of Congress.