“I Have a Dream” – Review and Comment of MLK’s Most Famous Speech

Like many, I am thankful God decided to use Martin Luther King Jr. as a key leader in the awakening process of the American conscious.

It is my opinion that Dr. King was wrong on a number of issues both public and personal. From what I can decipher of his political stance, mine is different. From what I can decipher of his view of abortion, mine is different (he should have rejected the Margaret Sanger Award in 1966, for example). And from what I can decipher of his theology, which from his seminary papers seemed to flow in the river of liberalism and the social gospel, mine is different. I also believe he should have been faithful to his wife.

These issues of disagreement and disappointment with Dr. King are major, and I would never sweep them under the rug. MLK is not worthy of worship (and I quickly add, neither am I). He was a man, a very intelligent leader, indeed, but one who had a number of serious deficiencies.

But in spite of his weaknesses, God decided to use him in the social sphere to bring about a tremendous and positive change for millions of people worldwide. God decided to use him in a way that no leader of the Civil Rights Movement after him was able to match. For his leadership on that front, I very much appreciate his work and sacrifice, and celebrate his memory today.

As with every historical hero, when we look closely, we will find areas of brokenness and weakness in their lives, sometimes on a high level. But we should always be able to accept these for what the are – evidences of depravity and sinfulness – and we should not throw out their good and braves actions because of it.

So to honor the memory of a great American hero, I am examining his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” eloquently delivered in Washington D.C. (1963). It was only one of hundreds of powerful speeches, sermons, and letters delivered by Dr. King, but it stands out among them as a moving masterpiece. So let us begin:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

In his introduction, Dr. King pays homage to the sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. The speech was given at the Lincoln Memorial beneath the great president’s “symbolic shadow.” The Emancipation Proclamation was a major step towards providing freedom for all slaves in the United States, providing “a great beacon light of hope.” Lincoln signed the Proclamation in 1863, one hundred years prior to King’s speech, hence his first cadence, “One hundred years later,” repeated four times in the next paragraph:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Next, Dr. King uses the metaphor of a bad check.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But 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. And 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.

King had a way of painting a bleak picture of reality, and yet turning it quickly around into a hopeful moment. In his view, “America has defaulted,” and yet he turns it to the positive, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

Here, my own view of politics and the role of government, as well as my view of the deficiencies of the social gospel, would come into conflict with King’s. And yet, I cannot disagree with him from a historical standpoint. That is, all Americans from the inception of the nation, have been guaranteed the rights Dr. King mentions. And I certainly agree that “black men as well as white men” are privy to those rights.

Next, King address the issue of gradualism, which is the view that the nation should not rush to bring about civil rights, but rather incorporate these rights slowly over time. Obviously, that view did not sit well with King, evidenced by his second cadence in the speech, “Now is the time”:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises 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 quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

These words are full of powerful imagery that King used to tap into the emotions of those gathered (a truly remarkable gift of his). To keep it brief, I’ll only mention my favorite. He compares the plight of people of color to a “sweltering summer,” but believes an “autumn of freedom and equality” is on the rise. These images provide for the listener a hook on which to hang his hat of memory.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Of course, this paragraph is of paramount importance, because it reveals Dr. King’s fundamental ethic, which he based on a theistic worldview. My theological disagreements with him notwithstanding, he was theistic enough to understand the power of forgiveness, of returning good for evil, and of keeping the “struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” For him, physical violence was not an option, and this was a doctrine he taught “again and again.” It was this plank in his public platform that set him apart as unique among many other civil rights activists. Unlike others who were ready to take up arms in order to obtain their rights (an action that provokes rather than heals), King insisted that “soul force” was stronger and always worked better. He was right. As a white man, I highly appreciate the next paragraph, and would encourage all white skin people to think deeply about it.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

The video of the speech is available online, and I encourage folks to watch. As the cameras pan the enormous crowd who had gathered that day, it is wonderful to see a fairly large number of white faces mixed into the crowd. The Civil Rights Movement was not a black only movement. There were many white people who fully understood the injustices that were being committed against people of color, and many who understood the reality of King’s words, “They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Though I would have disagreed with the general political climate of the Civil Rights Movement (since I pragmatically lean towards a moderate libertarianism), nonetheless, I think had I been alive at the time, my white face would have been a part of the movement. People are made in the image of God, a fact that does not change with skin color. And that image needs to be respected, cherished, and protected.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

In these two paragraphs, MLK lays out the basic infringements upon the rights of people of color at that time. Most readers are very well aware of many of the events King describes. But again, King alludes to biblical themes as a foundation for suffering well, believing, as Isaiah the prophet, that justice would eventually roll “down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He also emphatically states the very difficult truth for all people of all time, “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” alluding to passages like 1 Peter 3:8-18.

And now to the most famous part of the speech. The “I have a dream” cadence echoes nine times (using the word “dream” a total of eleven times), hammering these statements solidly into the American conscious:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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.”

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.

Again, Dr. King always seemed to me not to be interested in black superiority, but in equal treatment for all races. He did not dream that the sons of former slaves would rise up and capture the sons of former slave owners, making them slaves in return. No, he dreamed of a supper table where forgiveness and mutual respect reigns supreme among all mankind. This is the stance that made him an American hero. And it is a dream that many of us still dare to dream to this day, realizing that only in Christ is it truly possible.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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!

Here is perhaps the most famous line of the speech, and a fundamental truth. Human beings should be judged on the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. We must always look deeper than merely the amount of melanin expression a person has, and see into the core of their being before we judge what type of person he or she is.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

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

This section of the speech always hits me particularly hard. I was born in Georgia, lived most of my life in Alabama, and lived three years in Mississippi. I am a southern boy, and always will be. Though the south wasn’t the only place the struggle was severe (stories from Boston are just as shocking), nonetheless, the south has the reputation of being the worst.

The line that fills my eyes with tears every time I listen to it or read it is: “One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

About eight years ago, my family lived in Center Point, a suburb north of Birmingham. Our neighbors were a very nice black family who had a son a little older than our son. Those two played together all the time! And since our neighbor was a little older, he would watch out for our son (making sure he didn’t get hit by cars in the road, for example), he would teach him things (football, etc.), and our son thought the world of him, as did I.

One day, I was watching them through our living room window as they played in our front yard, and the words of Dr. King came flooding into my mind, “Right there in Alabama!” I said, out loud I think, “It is happening. The dream is happening right now in my front yard!”

It is astounding to me that when people actually get to know each other, how mutual respect rises. The more we know a person, regardless of skin color or cultural background, the more we realize that person is an actual person, with all the hopes and fears pertaining thereto.

Again, with these powerful statements, Dr. King shows us his dream is for mutual respect and equality, not superiority of any race over another. He wants black kids and white kids to play with each other, care for each other, pray for each other, and hope the best for one another, as stated explicitly in the next section. In heaven, the dream will reach its fullest and perfect realization, according to the vision of the Apostle John in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 (read them and see).

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. 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.

One mark of a truly powerful leader is his ability to cast a vision – a dream. Even if it is difficult to see how the dream may come true, a strong leader pushes hard for its realization. He keeps both “hope” and “faith” alive, even when the odds are stacked against him.

Next, King uses the lyrics of a great patriotic song as his final cadence:

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring! And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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!

Only a man of great intelligence would smoothly and naturally use the words “prodigious” and “curvaceous” in a public speech before thousands of people! In this final section, King takes his listeners on a tour of the nation’s mountains. He invites us to look down from those heights and see the people below, envisioning freedom for all.

The final paragraph is both wonderful and troubling. Wonderful because the dream is articulated with one final shout of future victory. But troubling as we get a hint of King’s mistaken liberal theology, revealing what might be a type of universalism, including “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” under the umbrella of “all of God’s children.” I would love to know exactly what he meant by that phrase, and how he understood those words. But even with the discomfort created by that phrase, he ends the speech with a riveting and powerful thought: One day, all of God’s children will be free at last! Even if there is strong disagreement over how a person becomes a child of God, and over true Gospel versus social gospel teaching, the statement itself is true. There is freedom available, and all God’s children will one day fully enjoy it.

So, an imperfect man was Dr. Martin Luther King – that fact is established. And yet a man who articulated a dream that caught the attention of a nation and the world. For that dream, he has my utmost respect and admiration, and for his flaws, I remember I am a flawed man too. Only in Jesus can we be healed of these flaws, regardless of skin color or culture – we are all saved in exactly the same way by the same blood of Jesus. There are no white lines, black lines, or hispanic lines at the cross. We are all in one line simply labeled, “Sinners who need to be saved.”

If you are still reading at this point, I salute you on making it through this great speech and my comments. I do hope you have a wonderful holiday, and that you celebrate what this day stands for. And may God grant to humankind a continued movement towards the great dream articulated by Dr. King, but realized in eternity by the gracious hand of King Jesus Christ.