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Essay: ‘Analysing Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech & its Impact on U.S. Civil Rights’

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  • Published: 26 February 2023*
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I Have A Dream…

This research report has the aim to analyse Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and its impact on the United States civil rights movement.

‘…America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds…So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.’

Martin Luther King delivered his speech on August 28, 1963 to a crowd of civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial. He spoke to a crowd of believers and dreamers, who too dreamt of a brighter and happier tomorrow. He spoke against the hundreds of thousands of Americans who still believed in segregation, supporting his family, community and supporters. He reflected on the ways the African-Americans were given a ‘bad check’ and disadvantaged in this world of white supremacy, but how it was time for them to ‘cash that check’ and rise above the discrimination. An American novelist, James Baldwin reflected on this moment, saying that King’s words made it seem that ‘we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real.’  This symbolises how deeply this speech impacted those that chose to hear it and how it invited thoughts of a brighter future to those who had forgotten how to fight.

‘Five score years ago a great American…signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…But 100 years later the Negro is still not free.’

In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, wrote the Emancipation Proclamation which stated that ‘all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.’  However, from looking at Martin Luther King’s words this proclamation had no effect, as ‘100 years later the Negro [was] still not free.’ At this time, a statement like this was monumental and either caused gratitude or resentment from the people of America, as they either supported the idea that everyone was equal and free or who wished to live in the system where whites had power and authority over blacks. So, what led to this division in America’s citizens? Where did slavery and discrimination originate from?

In the 16th century, African Americans were transported to the south of America, in Jamestown, Virginia  commencing Americans long, brutal history with slavery. African Americans were treated like cattle being sold at auctions, seen as property belonging to white Americans at this time.  The conditions under slavery were horrific, with plantation owners rarely providing slaves with adequate living conditions.  

This way of life lasted for around 200 years, until in the 1820s and 30s, some Americans, such as Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison, started to stand and oppose this mistreatment, stating that ‘slavery [was] undoubtedly a national evil.’  Garrison initiated the Anti-Slavery Societies of New England (1831) and America (1833) , sparking the commencement of change in the world. Of course, he and Lundy received opposition from the public, making their movements and actions against slavery harder.

The Civil War in 1861 was the next major event that occurred due to different opinions towards slavery in the United States, with the Northern (union) supporting the abolitionist cause due to their industrialisation and reduced reliance on slavery, and the Southern (confederates) rejecting this cause as they were heavily relying on slavery for their economy. The war lasted for 4 years, and eventually ended with defeat of the southern states. During the 4 years of opposition between the states, Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, which started the movement of changing America’s laws so that they covered all Americans. There were many amendments made to the constitution from 1865 to 1870, however the fight for equality was only just beginning.

In 1896, American introduced the ‘Jim Crow’ Laws, which were rules that welcomed segregation between the whites and blacks in America, creating even more disruption and angst between these two sides. The laws stated that everyone was ‘separate but equal,’ welcoming the actions of supremacist and racial groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan, the world’s most infamous hate group. They took advantage of the African American’s weakness and powerlessness against these rules and brutally abused, lynched and murdered them, all because they believed they were superior.  

‘The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers…have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.’

Martin Luther King’s words inspire memories of the ways the African American community was mistreated and wronged by the white American community, but also how the mindsets of white Americans were constantly changing. African-Americans had been discriminated against, mistreated and hurt all for something they couldn’t control, experiencing violence and ‘militancy’ from groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the police officers, so called symbols of protection. They had reason enough to hate and distrust all the white people they encountered, however they soon realised that all the evil they had experienced could not be blamed on the white community as a whole, just a proportion of it. Some white Americans had realised that ‘their destiny [was] tied up with [the African-American’s] destiny,’ meaning they did not believe in this discriminatory way of life. This sentiment was demonstrated through that proportion of the white community’s actions against this mistreatment, and their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement was a group of Americans of both races who ‘set out to overturn the Jim Crow laws that enforced the segregation of races in most aspects of US life.’  The movement was sparked by a single black woman and her refusal to conform to the rules set out by the white community she was ‘supposed to’ obey and respect. In 1995, Rosa Parks stood up against a white bus driver, James Blake, even when he said to her that he was ‘…going to have [her] arrested.’  She demonstrated the strength and sheer will that all the African-Americans had to possess to fight this racism, and inspired the actions of others including Martin Luther King, who orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycott where the African-Americans refused to ride the buses until they were desegregated.  Eventually, the bus companies had to comply and adhere to their wishes due to the rising possibility of bankruptcy.

The sit-ins and freedom rides were where the African-Americans were shown the greatest support by the white citizens of America. Inspired by the actions of King, students of all races began to calmly protest against these rules of race, by refusing to be served at counters for only one race and participating in freedom rides, where groups of African-American and white supporters would board interstate buses and refuse to sit in their allocated area. From these movements, the government was forced to retire its old laws and ways, banning segregation on interstate buses, and was forced to see how powerless they could be against a movement of this magnitude. It is clear from these events what Martin Luther King was mentioning in his speech and how much power he had to influence others.

‘I still have a dream…that all men are equal…This is our hope…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.’

When Martin Luther King stated that he had a dream that all men would be equal, 100 years after there were amendments made to the American constitution and after the first few Americans started to stand up for civil rights, we were shown the size of this issue. Through King’s use of the word dream, it was evident that he was wishing for something that had not happened yet, but he was hoping would occur in the future. We were shown how even after a speech of King’s strength and a movement of such magnitude rippled through the United States, everyone’s minds were not changed, including the 1968 Governor of Alabama George C. Wallace who promised everyone ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.’  However, what did King’s speech inspire?

For some, it gave them the strength to rise above the suffocating layers of discrimination that had been building up for centuries, as for others, primarily the white supremacists, his speech fuelled hatred and violence. Four young black girls were killed in a bombing less than a month after King’s speech and King himself received multiple death threats, before his assassination King also mentions that he wishes for a day when ‘we will be free,’ connoting to the restrictive chains of discrimination that were suffocating the African-American community.

Martin Luther King’s speech, ‘I Have a Dream’ touched the lives of thousands of people in 1963 and is still impacting society today. He lived with grace and undying loyalty and devotion to the lives of his community. It was through his actions that the world was able to move forward in life towards his dream.

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