For our inaugural essay contest, we asked high-school students to choose a document that helped shape the United States and analyze it in fewer than 2,000 words. Students were tasked with limning the historical context of the work and the language its creator chose, and with identifying echoes of its arguments in contemporary life. More than 3,000 students from around the world entered. Forty professors of history, political science, and composition winnowed the essays based on the quality of their analysis, structure, and voice; a panel of College Board experts and Atlantic staff members made the final selection. Many entries showed strength in one area or another, but the essay below was judged the soundest overall. It has been lightly edited for publication.
More than 50 years after its delivery, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous refrain of “I have a dream” remains a cry for freedom that has been adopted by activists the world over, from Tiananmen Square to the West Bank. But in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington, we must first understand the context of its delivery. King spoke of an America whose black population was “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” That he framed his words with images of slavery was no accident. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation a century prior, but the Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation, were still in full force throughout the South. Just 10 weeks before King’s speech, Governor George Wallace had attempted to obstruct two African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama; President John F. Kennedy had to send the National Guard to make the governor stand down. Meanwhile, the civil-rights movement was blossoming across the country. Peaceful sit-ins and boycotts—à la Rosa Parks—had yielded to violent action by 1963, most notably in the Birmingham riot of May. As King noted in his speech, these “whirlwinds of revolt,” characterized by riots and militant demonstrations, blustered through 100 towns and cities nationwide.