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.
The environment was ripe for change. To this end, King helped organize an ambitious political rally in the nation’s capital in August, along with five other prominent civil-rights leaders. On August 28, roughly 250,000 protesters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. By late afternoon, the marchers had begun to fade in the oppressive summer heat. Among them was the author Norman Mailer, who later recalled “a little of the muted disappointment which attacks the crowd in the seventh inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone eleven-to-three.” Many were already leaving by the time King was slated to speak.
The months leading up to August 28, 1963, had been tumultuous for King. Not only had he been the victim of multiple death threats and attempts on his life, but he had also attracted fierce opposition from within the civil-rights movement itself. Malcolm X, a leader of the Nation of Islam, had disparagingly dubbed the march the “Farce on Washington.” King had also been arrested, for the 13th time, during the Birmingham campaign only a few months earlier. Nevertheless, he now found himself at the wheel of a massive vehicle for change; almost a quarter of a million activists anxiously waited for him to begin his address. As he strode to the lectern, the words of a song his friend Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer, had sung earlier that day reverberated in his ears: “I’ve been ’buked and I’ve been scorned … I cannot make it alone.” She had performed this old spiritual at King’s personal request, and his mood at the time may well have mirrored the words of the song.
It was in this somber vein that King began his speech. He adhered closely to his prepared text at first, grandly recapitulating the multitude of injustices that African Americans faced. His background as a Southern Baptist preacher was readily apparent; he spoke slowly and paused at regular intervals, imbuing each word with ministerial gravity.
King began by invoking Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, setting his words in the appropriate temporal context: “Five score years ago …” This was the first in a number of instances when King deliberately anchored his speech in the architectural documents of Western literature, and then appropriated the original ideas to suit his own ends. King also made explicit reference to the Constitution. By associating his speech with these founding documents of the nation, King infused his words with credibility and familiarity.
Similarly, King effectively employed the extended metaphor of an unpaid debt to justify the African American rationale for protest. First he likened the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence to a “promissory note” for all Americans. Then he characterized the March on Washington as a mission “to cash this check”—a mission that was 100 years overdue. He lamented how, over the previous century, America’s “bank of justice” had marked this check with “insufficient funds” for its “citizens of color,” and he explained the refusal of African Americans to accept this injustice. This metaphor served as a narration of the events leading up to the march, and emphasized that “the Negro’s legitimate discontent” was directed at the legislature. Indeed, King made the point that the underlying aim of the march—“citizenship rights” for all people—was no different from that of the nation’s Founding Fathers in 1776.
King also introduced a number of biblical allusions. Like Lincoln, King had a deep knowledge of scripture—he quoted verses from Amos and Isaiah, and subtly referenced passages from Psalms and Galatians. These allusions surely resonated with large portions of his audience, and gave his words an added layer of depth. We can also draw similarities between King’s depiction of “the Negro” who “finds himself an exile in his own land” and the plight of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. This comparison served to paint the civil-rights movement in a sympathetic light, and to inspire hope. Under the leadership of the prophet Moses, the Israelites finally escaped oppression and found deliverance in the promised land; King implied that African Americans could find solace in this historical precedent, and that they too would be liberated in due course.
Up to this point, King’s speech had certainly been eloquent, but many members of the audience had expected something more, given his stellar reputation as an orator. John Lewis, a student leader of the march who later became a congressman, recalled that the speech thus far “was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make.” Mahalia Jackson must have shared his sentiment, for as King neared the end of his prepared remarks, she suddenly cried out: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin! Tell ’em about the dream!”
At this point, King’s oration leapt to life. The speech took on an extemporaneous nature and grew from an articulate summary of grievances into something transcendent. Jackson had heard him speak about his dream earlier that year; King now seized this established motif and ran with it. He sharply contrasted racism with tolerance, and prejudice with liberality: “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.” King also drew upon his personal situation to stimulate emotion, invoking his children to symbolize innocence and virtue: “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.” The parallel construction of these sentences reaffirmed the shift in King’s speech from a bleak account of past wrongs to a sincere expression of hope for the future.
Remarkably, King’s peroration was largely spontaneous. He had experimented with the refrain of “I have a dream” on a few prior occasions, but had not included it in his prepared text. In retrospect, it is significant that King used the word dream to convey his vision. We tend to label dreams as unreal conditions, but King’s doctorate in theology suggests that he may have intended to frame his dream in the biblical sense. Particularly in the Old Testament, dreams were used to convey God’s plan, and signified a promise that would inevitably be fulfilled. Knowing this, it is possible to interpret his dream as a promise to the American people that one day, freedom would “ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city” across the country.
America can still find resonance in King’s words today. The speech has played an integral role in improving race relations since the 1960s, but King’s dream has yet to be fully realized—he himself recognized that the events of 1963 were “not an end, but a beginning.” Congress passed the Civil Rights Act a year after his speech, but recently, controversy over what King in his “Dream” speech called “the winds of police brutality,” such as in the cases of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, has “staggered” the country. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, but debate continues to rage over new voter-identification laws that reduce turnout among African Americans. Protesters marched in 1963 under the collective banner of “Jobs and Freedom,” yet the unemployment rate for African Americans (9.5 percent) remains more than twice that for whites (4.6 percent).
King’s message cannot be confined only to America; his words ring just as true in my home country of New Zealand today as they did in Washington 52 years ago. Despite the fact that New Zealand is more than 6,500 miles removed from America, its Maori population suffers from the same socioeconomic factors and racial discrimination that have continued to plague African Americans.
Partly inspired by the civil-rights movement in America, Maoris waged a parallel struggle against racism in New Zealand during the 1970s. Just as African Americans called for recognition of their constitutional rights, a radical Maori protest group called Ngā Tamatoa (Young Warriors) staged street demonstrations and land occupations to campaign for proper recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. And just as King led civil-rights protesters to march on Washington in 1963, Dame Whina Cooper in 1975 led a historic land march from the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island to the country’s parliament, in Wellington, to protest the relentless alienation of Maori land. As President Jimmy Carter among others has noted, King, through his campaign for equal rights, not only helped to free African Americans, but “helped to free all people.”
It is unlikely King ever envisaged that on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a Maori contingent would perform a stirring haka (traditional war cry) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is even more unlikely that King envisaged that the day’s celebrations would culminate with America’s first black president addressing the nation. But in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. dared to dream, and today, the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” that King anticipated for his four children is a far brighter prospect than it was when he delivered his speech. Today we harbor hope that tomorrow, all of God’s children will finally be able to hold hands and repeat after King: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”