MLK’s ‘Dream’: How the Speech Became Popular

The way it came to define King's legacy is rooted in our nation's attitude toward black history.

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters at the 1963 March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters at the 1963 March on Washington. (AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Was the Martin Luther King Jr. speech we now know as “I Have a Dream” masterfully composed and delivered? Of course it was.

Was the moment in August 1963 when it was delivered historic? Absolutely. 

But does any of that explain why the “dream”– King’s well-known vision of black children and white children joining hands “as sisters and brothers,” judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — remains such a defining part of our memory of him? Does it tell the full story of how those aspirational phrases became essentials of even the most elementary Black History Month lesson? Or why Time magazine chose the theme “One Man. One March. One Speech. One Dream” for this year’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?

Probably not.

Neither the standout rhetoric that has earned King’s address a spot among top American speeches nor the landmark event that provided its backdrop fully explains our collective fixation on what’s known as “the dream refrain,” the portion of the speech that begins with King’s introduction of his vision of interpersonal racial harmony and concludes with “all flesh shall see it together.”

To understand how that chunk of about 300 words evolved in 50 years from a recycled sound bite to ubiquitous shorthand for King’s entire legacy, you have to understand a little about the address itself — and even more about Americans’ finicky attitude toward black history.

Just One Piece of “The Snickers Bar of Rhetoric”

The “I have a dream” bit was well-received at the time, but no more than the speech as a whole, says Hasan Jeffries, professor of history at the Ohio State University, who notes that the refrain was a detour from King’s planned remarks and the speech was actually titled “Normalcy, No More.” And it was just one of many high points in what Geoffrey Klinger, associate professor of communications at DePauw University, says is one of the strongest speeches in the history of American public address — or, as he calls it, “the Snickers bar of rhetoric.”

Beginning with language echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, juxtaposing the Emancipation Proclamation with “the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free” and announcing the “promissory note” owed to black Americans, as well as the country’s responsibility to “make good on that bad check,” King expertly used “borrowed ethos,” calling up sources ranging from America’s founding documents to patriotic songs, Klinger says. Even the Old Testament passages were wisely selected for broad, Christian and Jewish appeal and freedom-seeking themes.

Then there’s the speech’s generous use of archetypal metaphor, rich with vivid imagery and dramatic comparisons: the “quicksands of racial injustice” versus the “solid rock of brotherhood”; the “jangling discords of our nation” versus the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood”; the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” compared to the “invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” 

King also leaned on anaphora — or repetition — to drive home his point, says Klinger. But the dream refrain is just one of many uses of the technique. King begins with a reminder to America of the “fierce urgency of now.” This leads into a “now is the time” refrain that dovetails into the “quicksands of racial injustice.” He sets up his “We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied” with the rhetorical question, “When will you be satisfied?”