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"I Have a Dream" is a 17-minute public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, in which he called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. The speech, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. Delivered to over 200,000 civil rights supporters, the speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century by a 1999 poll of scholars of public address. According to U.S. Representative John Lewis, who also spoke that day as the President of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."
At the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme of "I have a dream", possibly prompted by Mahalia Jackson's cry, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" He had first delivered a speech incorporating some of the same sections in Detroit in June 1963, when he marched on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Reverend C. L. Franklin, and had rehearsed other parts. The speech starts by commending Abraham Lincoln for signing the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished slavery.
Widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, King's speech invokes the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the United States Constitution. Early in his speech, King alludes to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by saying "Five score years ago..." King says in reference to the abolition of slavery articulated in the Emancipation Proclamation, "It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity." Anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences, is a rhetorical tool employed throughout the speech. An example of anaphora is found early as King urges his audience to seize the moment: "Now is the time..." is repeated four times in the sixth paragraph. The most widely cited example of anaphora is found in the often quoted phrase "I have a dream..." which is repeated eight times as King paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience. Other occasions when King used anaphora include "One hundred years later," "We can never be satisfied," "With this faith," "Let freedom ring," and "free at last."
The ideas in the speech reflect King's social experiences of the mistreatment of blacks. The speech draws upon appeals to America's myths as a nation founded to provide freedom and justice to all people, and then reinforces and transcends those secular mythologies by placing them within a spiritual context by arguing that racial justice is also in accord with God's will. Thus, the rhetoric of the speech provides redemption to America for its racial sins. Excerpts from King's speech includes the line "I have a dream, that my four little 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. I have a dream today!"
The speech, known as "I Have a Dream Speech", has been shown to have had several versions, written at several different times. It has no single version draft, but is an amalgamation of several drafts, and was originally called "Normalcy, Never Again." Little of this, and another "Normalcy Speech," ends up in the final draft. A draft of "Normalcy, Never Again" is housed in the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection of Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center and Morehouse College. Our focus on "I have a dream," comes through the speech's delivery. Toward the end of its delivery, noted African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started "preaching", punctuating his points with "I have a dream."
The speech was drafted with the assistance of Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones in Riverdale, New York City. Jones has said that "the logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us" and that "on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, [12 hours before the March] Martin still didn't know what he was going to say".
Leading up to the speech's rendition at the Great March on Washington, King had delivered its "I have a dream" refrains in his speech before 25,000 people in Detroit's Cobo Hall immediately after the 125,000-strong Great Walk to Freedom in Detroit, June 23, 1963. After the Washington, D.C. March, a recording of King's Cobo Hall speech was released by Detroit's Gordy records as an LP entitled "The Great March To Freedom."
The speech was lauded in the days after the event, and was widely considered the high point of the March by contemporary observers. James Reston, writing for the New York Times, noted that the event "was better covered by television and the press than any event here since President Kennedy's inauguration," and opined that "it will be a long time before [Washington] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude." An article in the Boston Globe by Mary McGrory reported that King's speech "caught the mood" and "moved the crowd" of the day "as no other" speaker in the event. Marquis Childs of The Washington Post wrote that King's speech "rose above mere oratory". An article in the Los Angeles Times commented that the "matchless eloquence" displayed by King, "a supreme orator" of "a type so rare as almost to be forgotten in our age," put to shame the advocates of segregation by inspiring the "conscience of America" with the justice of the civil-rights cause.
The March on Washington put much more pressure on the Kennedy administration to advance civil rights legislation in Congress. The diaries of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published posthumously in 2007, suggest that President Kennedy was concerned that if the march failed to attract large numbers of demonstrators, it might undermine his civil rights efforts.
The closing passage from King's speech partially resembles Archibald Carey, Jr.'s address to the 1952 Republican National Convention: both speeches end with a recitation of the first verse of Samuel Francis Smith's popular patriotic hymn "America" (My Country ’Tis of Thee), and the speeches share the name of one of several mountains from which both exhort "let freedom ring".
It also alludes to Psalm 30:5 in the second stanza of the speech.
King also quotes from Isaiah 40:4-5—"I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted..." Additionally, King alludes to the opening lines of Shakespeare's "Richard III" when he remarks, "this sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn..."
Because King's speech was broadcast to a large radio and television audience, there was controversy about the copyright status of the speech. If the performance of the speech constituted "general publication", it would have entered the public domain due to King's failure to register the speech with the Registrar of Copyrights. If the performance only constituted "limited publication", however, King retained common law copyright. This led to a lawsuit, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., which established that the King estate does hold copyright over the speech and had standing to sue; the parties then settled. Unlicensed use of the speech or a part of it can still be lawful in some circumstances, especially in jurisdictions under doctrines such as fair use or fair dealing. Under the applicable copyright laws, the speech will remain under copyright in the United States until 70 years after King's death, thus until 2038.
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