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On This Day: Martin Luther King Jr. Delivers “I Have a Dream” Speech

Last updated: March 1, 2023

On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech at a civil rights rally in Washington, D.C.

The March on Washington

In 1963, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Negro American Labor Counsel leader A. Philip Randolph, who in 1941 had planned a march in Washington to protest the exclusion of blacks from national defense jobs, organized a march along with leaders of the most prominent civil rights organizations: Jim Farmer (CORE), Martin Luther King (SCLC), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkens (NAACP), and Whitney Young (Urban League).

These leaders, dubbed the “Big Six,” along with Bayard Rustin composed a list of demands from the government, including a “comprehensive civil rights bill,” protection of the right to vote, a “reduction in Congressional seats in states where citizens are disenfranchised,” a minimum wage increase, and an act “barring discrimination in all employments.” These demands were read at the end of the march by Rustin.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 people gathered at the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which featured speeches by civil rights, religious and labor leaders, as well as singing performances and prayers.

All but one of the “Big Six” leaders gave a speech; Farmer was in prison at the time, so his remarks were read by a CORE colleague. King’s speech was delivered near the end of the event.

At once a political call to action and deeply spiritual sermon, the Southern Baptist preacher began by painting a grim picture of a nation in need of change. Providing a historical case for change, King appealed to the crowd with a “fierce urgency of now.”

Having established the dire state of affairs for minorities in the United States, King made an appeal to “not wallow in the valley of despair.”

What followed would become one of the most often-cited public texts in American history, though it was not part of King’s original draft. Drawing on previous speeches he had made, King delivered a series of short stanzas that began with “I have a dream.”

He recounted the speech in November 1963: “And all of a sudden this thing came to me that. … I’d used many times before. … ‘I have a dream.’ And I just felt that I wanted to use it here. … I used it, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether. I didn’t come back to it.”

“I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out 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 my four 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.”

He ended his speech proclaiming, “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Alluding to the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, King attempted to appeal to not only the 80 percent of African Americans that made up the crowd, but the country as a whole.

“Millions of Americans, Black and white, watch the March and rally on TV,” writes the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. “For most of them, this is their first direct exposure to the Freedom Movement beyond brief sound-bites and newspaper interpretations. While it is unlikely that the March changes the minds of committed segregationists, for the rest of the population, the dignity, strength, purpose, and discipline of the freedom marchers has a positive affect.”

Text and video of Martin Luther King’s speech is available at American Rhetoric.

Background: Civil Rights Movement

Civil Rights Movement OTDs

In the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, slavery was abolished in all parts of the country, and blacks were granted citizenship, equal protection and the right to vote. But following the end of Reconstruction in 1876, there was little progress in advancing black civil rights.

Southern states proved to be especially hostile toward the advancement of civil rights, with many still holding tight to the Jim Crow laws that had emerged after the Civil War. There were several important civil rights advancements in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, including the desegregation of the military, public schools and baseball.

The civil rights movement that culminated in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is considered to have begun with Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Over the next 10 years, civil rights leaders would use primarily nonviolent means such as marches, boycotts, sit-ins and voting drives to advance their cause.

Though the civil rights movement made strides in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, at the time of the March on Washington there still existed “high levels of black unemployment, work that offered most African Americans only minimal wages and poor job mobility, systematic disenfranchisement of many African Americans, and the persistence of racial segregation in the South,” says Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

The march served as the final push needed for Congress to pass two momentous acts in the following two years: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil Rights Movement features links to the best primary and secondary sources on the movement.

Biography: Martin Luther King Jr.

Sources in this Story

  • Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement: March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom (Aug)
  • PBS: WGBH: Demands of the March on Washington
  • Our Documents: Official Program for the March on Washington (1963)
  • Stanford University: Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: I Have a Dream (28 August 1963)
  • PBS: NewsHour: Remembering the March
  • PBS: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
  • Library of Congress: The Civil Rights Era
  • The National Archives (UK): What was the March on Washington?
  • Denver Business Journal: MLK speech at heart of copyright dispute

Born in Atlanta in January 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the son and grandson of pastors who, after earning a doctorate from Boston University in 1955, accepted a job as a pastor in Montgomery, Ala. It was here that he would rise to prominence as a civil rights leader, serving as one of the leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.

King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and, as its first president, he led non-violent campaigns of civil disobedience. He became the face of the civil rights movement, and would earn Time Man of the Year for 1963 and the Nobel Peace Prize of 1964 for his work.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis by James Earl Ray. The day before his death, King said in his final public speech, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Opposition to the Speech

While remembered as a seminal point in U.S. history, the March on Washington and King’s speech were not universally accepted at the time, even among many African-American leaders. Malcolm X referred to it as the “Farce on Washington,” and Stokely Carmichael called it a “sanitized, middle-class version of the real black movement.”

Meanwhile, some government officials believed it would result in violence and civil unrest in Washington, including the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and even President Kennedy.

Copyright Dispute Over Speech

Copyrighted a month after its delivery, the speech became the subject of a lawsuit in 1994 after CBS produced a documentary on his life that included more than half of the recorded speech.

Although the speech had been given when a 1909 law existed stating that a public speech amounted to publication, CBS’ production occurred two decades after the law had been abolished. The King estate won the ensuing lawsuit and retains all rights to the speech.

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