"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."

Answering Questions about Martin Luther King and the I Have a Dream Speech

The "I have a Dream" speech is one of the most famous speeches in the world and the man who uttered those immortal words is considered by many historians as the most effective civil rights leader that ever lived. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his oft-repeated speech on August 28th, 1963 in Washington, DC on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He was there speaking to a crowd of over 200,000 people who were participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His speech was a pivotal moment on his long journey as a civil rights activist and was a major factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Although it was 15 years in the making, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday officially became a federal holiday in 1983.

Origins of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15th, 1929. He won the Nobel Peace prize in 1964 for his tireless efforts to promote non-violent protests against racial and societal inequalities. His civil rights career began with his work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which he eventually became the leader before beginning his rise to national prominence.

Young Martin King was actually born Michael King but changed his name in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther, just at his father did before him. As a child, Martin was raised in a very religious household. His father, Martin Senior, was a successful pastor at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta who fought against racial discrimination and taught his children to respect differences and reject ideas of class superiority. These ideals made a huge impression on Martin Junior, who, as a precocious high school student, excelled in his studies and entered college early at the age of 15.

Initially rebelling against the expectations of his father, Martin enjoyed the care-free, partying lifestyle of the typical American college student, but by his junior year, he had found his calling and decided to embark on a career in the ministry. After receiving his degree in sociology from Morehouse College, Martin attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania where he became student body president and valedictorian of his class in 1951.

For his Doctoral study, King was accepted by several prominent schools, including Yale, before he eventually settled on attending Boston University, where he received his PhD in Theology at the age of 25. After becoming head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and adopting principles of non-violent protest, King began staging protests all around the south, which eventually led him to help organize the hugely attended March on Washington in 1963, where he made his celebrated speech “I have a Dream.”

The Speech

Martin Luther King’s speech, with passages borrowed from family friend and Minister Archibald Carey, was unbelievably moving, hopeful, and infused with a passion that stirred a whole nation, and it seems, the whole world, into action. Below is the text of the speech in its entirety, as it was delivered in 1963(1):

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

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. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream 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 one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to 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!”(1)

Impact of the Speech

The speech caused giant ripples throughout the country and all around the world. It was one of the main catalysts for the awakening of American cities that had not been practicing so-called Jim Crow laws or experiencing the severe racial tensions that permeated all throughout the South. Peace-filled protests against racial prejudice became the rallying cry for governments around the world and led to Martin Luther King Jr. being awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1964.

Although the Civil Rights movement continued to experience its share of ups and downs over the next few years, the momentum it gained after King’s famous speech was unstoppable. It helped usher in the Voting Rights act of 1965 and gave birth to hundreds of other movements, protests and activists who sought to create social equality and justice within their own cities and local communities.


The Speech

The King Center

The Nobel Prize

The National Park Service Monuments

MLK Assassination

Washington, DC MLK Memorial

The Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK Education for Kids

Martin Luther King Jr. Student Project

Southern Christian Leadership Conference 

South Carolina Assistive Technology Program

Selinsgrove Area School District

CCNY Libraries

Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment

Oregon Commission for Childcare

National Science Teachers Association

North Georgia College & University Teaching Resources

Stanford University Spanish Language Resources

Wyndham City Council Bullying Support

Dixie State College Browning Library

Foundation for Retinal Research

Coker College Comprehensive Resources List

North Carolina Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairment

Source cited

(1)   Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech excerpted from a tribute article on The Huffington Post, posted on January 16th 2012.

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