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)

He does it again with his state-specific message of hope (“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 our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed”). And the final section, in which he paints the entire geography of the nation with the refrain “Let freedom ring” — uttering the phrase no fewer than 10 times — King builds momentum and harnesses the audience’s enthusiasm for his final and most controversial push: an insistence on equality for blacks in the South.

In other words, the speech wasn’t lacking in specifics, style or content and was designed to evoke passion for racial justice. And it would have been tough to guess on that day which parts would be most remembered. It could just as easily have gone down in history as the “Let Freedom Ring,” “Now Is the Time,” “Quicksands of Racial Injustice” or “We Are Not Satisfied and Will Not Be Satisfied” speech as “I Have a Dream.”

After all, the address as a whole — let alone the dream refrain — did not make big news on that day back in 1963. The post-march headlines were much more “They Didn’t Burn Down D.C.” than “Martin Luther King Shared His Dream,” according to Jeffries.

Even five years later, when King was assassinated, the vision he’d described wasn’t universally mourned. Jeffries points out that at the time of his death, King was the most unpopular African American at the time, according to any major poll. “So when he died in 1968, white folks, especially in the South, weren’t losing any sleep,” he says, “and they certainly weren’t saying, ‘We lost the dream.’ They certainly weren’t saying, ‘The dream is dead.’ “

A Marketing Campaign for King’s Memory

But the framing of King’s legacy through the lens of the dream refrain began in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. Lyndon B. Johnson was among countless others who eulogized and memorialized King by referencing his “dream,” often being quite vague about what, exactly, that dream was, says Jeffries.

This part of the 1963 speech got even more airtime in the subsequent years. The organizing effort to establish a national holiday in King’s honor — which launched just days after his death when Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced federal legislation, and continued with Coretta Scott King’s dogged work to promote his life’s work through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change — “definitely played up and played off of the dream refrain,” says Jeffries.

“They used that moment in that speech to sort of market him. Not in a cynical way. Not in a way that Coca-Cola markets. But they were genuinely committed to this national holiday as a way to keep the social-justice agenda of MLK alive, and they chose to make this dream concept the major tool,” says Jeffries. He adds that the ephemera promoting King’s legacy in that nationwide lobbying effort leave no doubt that the dream refrain was used as “a moment that could resonate with the most people.”

That focus on universal appeal is explicit in Coretta Scott King’s remarks after President Ronald Reagan finally signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983. “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” she said.

And with the establishment of the holiday, the notion of the dream became synonymous with King’s life and legacy. It only makes sense that, somewhere along the way, the speech began to be known as “I Have a Dream,” to match the theme of the campaign marketing King’s message.