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'I Have a Dream': Martin Luther King and the power of words

Courtney Tenz
August 27, 2023

60 years after he delivered his iconic speech in Washington DC, the US civil rights activist's words still have an incomparable impact today.

Black and white picture of US civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr, speaking into a microphone.
Unforgettable: Martin Luther King delivers his legendary speech in Washington DCImage: akg-images/picture alliance

"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."

Those words, delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, continue to resonate 55 years after the death of the pastor and civil rights activist.

They are part of King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech that has since been taught in schools, reprinted in university textbooks, featured in numerous documentaries about the era, quoted by former US President Barack Obama, and even sampled in music by the likes of Michael Jackson and rapper Common. 

Picture of the crowd that attended the funeral of slain US civil rights activist, martin Luther King Jr.
More than 100,000 people attended the funeral service for Martin Luther KingImage: Flip Schulke. Photo courtesy of UT Austin's Briscoe Center for American History

For fellow civil rights activist John Lewis, who also spoke that day at the "March on Washingtonfor Jobs and Freedom" in 1963, it wasn't the words alone that influenced people. The current Democratic Congressman who as a young man was on the frontline of the civil rights movement, spoke on the "Newshour" program on PBS about King's own unique charisma

"Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized," said Lewis. "By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."

Rhetorical strategies

From a rhetorical perspective, the man who would come to embody the US civil rights struggle had employed many speaking strategies that ensured his words would resonate with his audience. A preacher by vocation, Martin Luther King Jr interwove not only references to his Christian religion, but drew on biblical stories and quotations that would be especially meaningful to the public gathered before him.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, hill and mountain shall be made low," he said. "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."

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle help complete a painting of Martin Luther King Jr
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle help complete a painting of Martin Luther King JrImage: Imago/Zuma Press

By combining scriptural reference like this with vocabulary taken from traditional American hymns like the patriotic anthem "America" — which recites that "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty" — King created his own unique voice through a rhetorical process known as "voice merging."

The effect was to stir up emotions that move beyond the meanings of the words themselves, relying instead on the emotional impact of the greater meaning.

The "I Have a Dream" speech may be King's most memorable, but it is neither the first nor the last to employ this strategy. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written on April 16, 1963 after King's arrest in Alabama for civil disobedience, he wrote:

"Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."

Picture of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in Washington DC, with an obelisk in the background.
The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DCImage: Imago/UPI Photo

Even without knowing the particular Bible story references, parallels are drawn that allow for readers of the letter to grasp the intended meaning.

King's impact today

Martin Luther King Jr's rhetorical abilities were so powerful that immediately after delivering the speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights activist landed on the FBI's radar as a person to watch closely.

Today, King's rhetoric is the subject of university seminars. They were the right words for the right audience at the right time. A timeless document.

As Deval Patrick, the first Black governor in the state of Massachusetts and the second Black governor ever elected in U.S. history, said, "The speech was prophetic in its time, as were many of King's speeches. They are timeless and poetic, a challenge — and for us, an incentive."

In early 2023, the city of Boston unveiled a new memorial sculpture in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. It was in this city where he once earned a doctorate in theology and met his wife. Called "The Embrace," the bronze sculpture, which is 6 meters high and almost 8 meters wide, is the largest monument in the U.S. dedicated to racial equity. 

Picture of a bronze sculpture in the US city of Boston called "The Embrace," which commemorates both ciivl rights activist Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King.
'The Embrace' is situated in the Boston CommonsImage: GWR/STAR MAX/IPx/picture alliance

It was designed from a historic photograph taken in 1964, when news reached King that he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and he fell into the arms of his wife, Coretta. 

This is an updated version of an article that was first published on April 4, 2018.