Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

When did the “I Have a Dream” speech happen?

 

On August 28th, 1963, a defining moment in the fight for civil rights unfolded as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom event.

Beyond the speech’s historical impact was King’s ability to convince through his rhetorical brilliance. 

Who wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech?

 

Contrary to popular belief, the actual words to the “I Have a Dream” speech was a collaboration between Clarence Jones, Stanley Levison, and others, including MLK. The “I Have a Dream” speech combined writing and delivery brilliance. It is indeed a masterpiece.

Martin Levison standing next to Martin Luther King
Stanley Lavison played an instrumental role in writing the "I Have a Dream" speech

Historical and Cultural Context of the “I Have a Dream” Speech

 

So, what was going on in the United States on August 28th, 1963?

This date marked the height of the civil rights movement in the United States. The country was struggling with deep-seated racial inequality and segregation. Blacks were fighting for their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Where Was the “I Have a Dream” Speech Spoken

 

Most importantly, the March on Washinton for Jobs and Freedom event was underway on this date. The event was held at the Lincoln Memorial with an attendance of 250,000. Roy Ottaway Wilkins, John Lewis, and Whitney Young were among the speakers. Martin Luther King was the last to speak. His speech was a demand for justice and equality. 

So, the “I Have a Dream” speech was a call to action, urging the nation to live up to its founding principles of freedom and equality.

The March on Washington was a defining moment in the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King’s speech became its most memorable moment.

A large crowd of people holding up picket signs
People of all races, nationalities and religeons gathered for the March on Washinton for jobs and Freedom

Other interesting reading

How and Why Was the “I Have a Dream” Speech a Masterstroke?

 

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonates because he mastered all the rhetorical techniques everyone needs to deliver compelling messages. These devices amplify the power of words and evoke strong emotions in listeners. King’s notable strategic choices of repetition, parallelism, and vivid metaphors make his message unforgettable.

Marting Luther King waving his hand to a large crowd

Repetition Hammers in Your Message

 

King used repetition like a sonic hammer, driving his message home with rhythmic cadence using the expressions “I have a dream” and “Let freedom ring.”

For instance, at timestamp 10:58, King introduces the word “dream” with this sentence.

“So, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream

“. . . I have a dream today

“. . . I have a dream that one day down in Alambama. . . ”

“. . . I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.”

He creates a parenthesis by ending the last sentence of this section of the speech with “I have a dream”

“the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood, I have a dream

Bringing back the expression nails the idea that this will be the speech’s theme from now on. The word “dream” returns eleven times in the whole speech.  

“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.”

Martin Luther King adressing a crowd

Martin Luther King uses the same method of repetition when he quotes last line of the first verse of the spiritual My Country, tis of thee “Let freedom ring”. Using the same method as “I have a dream”, King drives “Let freedom ring” no less than eleven times.

Painting a Tapestry of Words With Symbolism

 

King painted his “I Have a Dream” speech with imagery and symbolic language. Metaphors such as the “promissory note” and the “bad check” artfully communicated the unfulfilled promises of freedom. This symbolic language transformed the speech into a shared vision, crossing racial boundaries through a common understanding of the dream.

“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.”

“. . . we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Emotional Resonance: A Heartfelt Connection

 

King’s ability to evoke deep emotions with his audience is a testament to his oratory mastery. He fostered empathy and a shared sense of humanity through carefully chosen words and a passionate delivery. The speech is more than intellectual engagement. It leaves a mark on the hearts of those who heard it.

Thousands of people gathering for the March on Washington demonstration
This photos gives a good idea of the number of people who showed up to the March on Washington for jobs and freedom

Balancing Idealism and Realism

 

Martin Luther King balanced optimism with a statement of the harsh realities of racial injustice. By confronting the “manacles of segregation” and the “chains of discrimination,” he grounded the dream in the painful truths of the times while inspiring hope for a brighter tomorrow. This delicate balance elevated the speech beyond rhetoric, making it an influential and chilling commentary on the times.

The beginning of King’s speech glorifies the Emancipation Proclamation; King then slams everyone with the ugly truth in 1963 while repeating the words “100 years later”

The glorification:

“This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of whithering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

The realization:

“But one hundred years later, the negro America is still not free”

A Speech Speckled With Allusions Communicates to Everyone

 

Martin Luther King’s speech uses many allusions, drawing from diverse sources such as the Bible, the Constitution, and other famous speeches. This strategic use of allusion added depth and resonance to King’s words by connecting the struggle for civil rights to broader ideals deeply held in American culture.

A Bible reference Isaiah 40:4-5

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low.”

 

A Shakespeare reference and twist

” This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

Martin speaks ion front of the crowd attending the March on Washington for jobs and freedom

The “I Have a Dream” Speech Has a Rhythmic Pacing:

 

King’s speech had a poetic quality in its rhythmic pacing. The ebb and flow of his words made the speech almost musical. This musicality held the audience captive. This rhythmic finesse elevated the speech from a political address to a work of art.

“Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.”

Inclusive Language Weaves Unity

 

To make sure that everyone felt addressed, King used inclusive language. By repeatedly using words like “we” and “our,” he created a sense of unity, making the “dream” not only his own but a collective aspiration for all. This inclusive approach made the speech a rallying cry for a diverse America that needed to unite. 

“We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.”

The Power of Silence in the “I Have a Dream” Speech

 

King’s strategic pauses punctuated points within his speech, allowing the audience to absorb and reflect on his words. Well-placed pauses transformed the speech into a conversation, engaging listeners in a dialogue on justice and equality.

 

 

Fun fact: Some pauses are King’s struggle to get his thoughts together. Although the speech is almost flawless, at 9:29 King fumbles and at 11:58 King slows down but gathers his thoughts to come back even stronger.

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Anaphora: Crafting Memorable Mantras

 

The deliberate use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, amplified the impact of King’s speech. “Now is the time,” “I have a dream,” and “Let freedom ring” became memorable mantras, reinforcing key themes and galvanizing the audience. The dominant use of Anaphora is with these clauses:

 

” I Have a Dream”

“Let Freedom Ring”

“100 Years Later”

“Now is the time”

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 make real the promise 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 quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.”

low view of marchers going to the march on washington for jobs and freedom march
Every race and religion showed up for the event

The “I Have a Dream” Speech Was a Strong Call to Action

 

Beyond King’s rhetorical flair, the speech was a strategic call to action. First, King carefully crafts his placement of outright commands like “Go back to Mississippi” at 10:14 and “Now is the time”. He then builds on the call to action, appealing to the audience to return to their communities and demand their rights. This was instrumental in transforming the dream speech into actual change. 

The link is made with the Anaphora of “Let Freedom rain” that puts the responsibility of the listeners of the speech:

“. . . And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire”

“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and 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!'”

Noone Can Forget Martin Luther King’s Vocal Tone

 

Being the son of a preacher was significant in Martin Luther King’s ability to drive home a message. All the rhetorical techniques mentioned above would be challenging to apply without hundreds of hours of practice and observation. Delivering this seamlessly and naturally was vital in convincing the public of Martin Luther King’s message.  

Conclusion

 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a timeless masterpiece that resonates to this day. Its rhetorical brilliance, manifested through repetition, symbolism, emotional resonance, a nuanced balance of idealism and realism, allusions, rhythmic pacing, inclusive language, strategic pauses, anaphora, and compelling call to action, remains unmatched.

When revisiting this iconic address, we can’t help but marvel at the enduring power of the words that inspired many to ignite change and shape the course of history.

Other fantastic resources about the MLK speech

The YouTube video that accompanies the content of this blog post

An excellent dissection of the Martin Luther King speech by Nerdwriter

Full transcript of the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech August 28th, 1963

 

Please note: There is a small introductory part of the speech that I left out of the timestamping. This makes the speech’s 00:00 mark a bit further down from what would technically be considered as the beginning of the “I Have a Dream speech”

 

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Five score years ago,

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a great American in whose symbolic shadow

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we stand today

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signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

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This momentous decree came

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as a great beacon light of hope

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to millions of Negro slaves.

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Who had been seared in the flames

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of withering injustice.

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It came as a joyous daybreak

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to end the long night of their captivity.

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But 100 years later,

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the Negro still is not free.

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100 years later,

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the life of the Negro is still sadly

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crippled by the manacles of segregation

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and the chains of discrimination.

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100 years later,

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the Negro lives on

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a lonely island of poverty

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in the midst of a vast

ocean of material prosperity.

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100 years later,

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the Negro is still languished

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in the corners of American society

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and finds himself in exile in his own land.

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And so we’ve come here today

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to dramatize a shameful condition.

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In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital

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to cash a check.

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When the architects of our republic

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wrote  the magnificent words of the Constitution

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and the Declaration of Independence.

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They were signing a promissory note

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to which every American was to fall heir.

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This note was a promise that all men,

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yes, black men as well as white men,

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would be guaranteed the unalienable

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rights of life, liberty

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and the pursuit of happiness.

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It is obvious today

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that America has defaulted on this promissory note

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insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.

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Instead of honouring this sacred obligation,

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America has given the Negro people a bad check.

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A check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

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But we refuse to believe that

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the Bank of Justice is bankrupt.

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We refuse to believe that there are insufficient

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funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

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And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon

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demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

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We have also come to this hallowed spot

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to remind America

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of the fierce urgency of now.

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This is no time

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to engage in the luxury of cooling off

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or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism.

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Now is the time

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to make real the promises of democracy.

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Now is the time

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to rise from the dark and desolate valley

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of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

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Now is the time

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to lift our nation from the

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quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

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Now is the time now

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to make justice

a reality for all of God’s children.

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It would be fatal for the nation

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to overlook the urgency of the moment.

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This sweltering summer

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of the Negro’s legitimate discontent

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will not pass

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until that is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

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1963 is not an end but a beginning.

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Those who hope that

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the Negro needed to blow off steam

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and will now be content will have a rude awakening

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if the nation returns to business as usual.

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And I will be neither rest

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nor tranquillity in America

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until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

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The whirlwinds of revolt will continue

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to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day

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of justice emerges.

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But that is something that I must say to my people

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who stand on the warm threshold,

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which leads into the Palace of Justice

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in the process of gaining our rightful place.

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We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

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Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom

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by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

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No, we must forever

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conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

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We must not allow our creative protest

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to degenerate into physical violence

again and again.

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We must rise to the majestic heights

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of meeting physical force with soul force

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of the marvellous new militancy

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which has engulfed the Negro community

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must not lead us to a distrust of all white people.

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For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here

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today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

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They have come to realize that their freedom

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is inextricably bound to our freedom.

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We cannot walk alone.

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And as we walk,

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we must make the pledge

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that we shall always march ahead.

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We cannot turn back.

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There are those who are asking

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the devotees of civil rights

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when will you be satisfied?

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We can never be satisfied

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as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors.

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of police brutality.

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We can never be satisfied

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as long as our body

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is heavy with the fatigue of travel and cannot gain

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lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

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We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s

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basic mobility is from a small ghetto to a larger one.

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We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped

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of their selfhood and robbed of that dignity by signs stating, “For whites only.”

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We cannot be

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satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote,

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and a Negro in New York  believes he has nothing

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for which to vote.

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No, no,

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we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice

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rolls down like waters and righteousness

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like a mighty stream.

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I’m not unmindful

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that some of you have come here

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out of great trials and tribulations.

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Some of you have come fresh from

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narrow jail cells.

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Some of you have come from areas

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where your quest for freedom

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left you battered by the storms of persecution.

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Yet and staggered by the winds of police brutality,

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you have been the veterans of creative suffering

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and continue to work with the faith

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that unearned suffering is redemptive.

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Go back to Mississippi.

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Go back

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to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia,

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go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums

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and ghettos of our northern cities,

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knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

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Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

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I say to you today, my friend.

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So even though

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we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,

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I still have a dream. Yes,

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it is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 

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I have a dream

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that one day 

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this nation will rise up

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and live out the true meaning of its creed.

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We hold these truths to be self-evident,

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that all men are created equal.

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I have a dream

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that one day on the red hills of Georgia,

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the sons of former

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slaves and the sons of former slave owners

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will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

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I have a dream

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that one day

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even the state of Mississippi,

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a state sweltering with the heat

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of injustice,

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sweltering with the heat of oppression,

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will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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I have a dream

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that my four little children

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will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged

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by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

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I have a dream today.

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I have a dream that one day

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down in Alabama with its vicious racists,

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with its governor having his lips dripping

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with the words of interposition and nullification one day.

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right right down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able

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to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

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I have a dream today.

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I have a dream

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that one day every valley shall be exalted

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and every hill and mountain shall be made low.

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The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight.

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And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

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And all flesh shall see it together.

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This is our hope.

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This is a faith.

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that I go back to the South with.

 

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With this faith, we will be able to

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hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

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With this faith, we will be able to transform

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the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

00;13;56;09 – 00;13;59;27

With this faith, we will be able to work together,

00;13;59;27 – 00;14;04;01

to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together,

00;14;04;06 – 00;14;11;00

to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

00;14;11;02 – 00;14;14;12

This will be the day.

00;14;14;15 – 00;14;18;05

This will be the day when all of God’s children

00;14;18;07 – 00;14;21;01

will be able to sing with new meaning.

00;14;21;01 – 00;14;23;19

My country tis of thee,

00;14;23;19 – 00;14;29;04

sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died.

00;14;29;04 – 00;14;35;24

Land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

00;14;35;24 – 00;14;40;18

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

00;14;40;21 – 00;14;43;03

So let freedom ring

00;14;43;03 – 00;14;46;03

from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

00;14;46;05 – 00;14;51;10

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

00;14;51;12 – 00;14;55;29

Let freedom ring from the heightening

Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

00;14;56;02 – 00;15;00;19

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.

00;15;00;21 – 00;15;04;06

Let freedom ring from the curvacious slopes of California.

00;15;04;06 – 00;15;07;05

Yes, but not only that,

00;15;07;05 – 00;15;11;28

let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

00;15;12;00 – 00;15;13;25

Let freedom ring from

00;15;13;25 – 00;15;16;21

Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

00;15;16;21 – 00;15;21;25

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi,

00;15;21;28 – 00;15;26;06

from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

00;15;26;06 – 00;15;30;03

And when this happens,

00;15;30;05 – 00;15;33;15

when we allow freedom ring,

00;15;33;18 – 00;15;37;03

when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet,

00;15;37;06 – 00;15;40;24

from every state and every city,

00;15;40;26 – 00;15;43;26

we will be able to speed up that day

00;15;43;26 – 00;15;47;22

when all of God’s children, black men and white men,

00;15;47;25 – 00;15;53;07

Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands

00;15;53;14 – 00;15;56;14

and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

00;15;56;19 – 00;15;59;14

free at last, free at last.

00;15;59;14 – 00;16;01;27

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

About the Author

My name is Jacques Gaines, and I am a photographer, videographer, and copywriter living in Quebec City, Canada. I also have a YouTube channel and an Instagram account dedicated to creation and creativity via my main loves of photography, music, and writing.

To get in touch with me and discuss a collaboration, service needed, or advice, go to my contact page

Jacques Gaines looking in a camera pointing upward

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