Why “I Have a Dream” Speech Endures

If Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the most famous speech in American history, then it can be argued that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the second most famous speech. Standing on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, King addressed an estimated crowd of 250,000 to 400,000 people on August 28, 1963, with a 17-minute speech that was powerful, soaring, and emotional — bringing men and women to tears according to eyewitnesses. Half a century later, the speech continues to resonate and inspire; moreover it is considered a rhetorical masterpiece. Political speech analyst, Richard Greene writes: “The speech is perfect in every way. The use of language, the emotional build-up, the penetrating message and the flawless delivery are, plain and simple, perfection.”

What makes King’s oration truly remarkable — and few Americans know this — is that much of it was spoken extemporaneously — there were no teleprompters or cue cards to assist King. Although King wrote the speech the night before the event and brought his draft to the event, he strayed from his written remarks to deliver a moving speech from the heart. In his autobiography, King elaborates: “I guess I finished [the outline] about midnight. I did not finish the complete text of my speech until 4:00 am on the morning of the 28th. I started out reading the speech and read it down to a point. The audience’s response was wonderful that day, and all of a sudden this thing came to me. I had used [the phrase “I have a dream”] many times before, and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about it before the speech. I used the phrase, at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether and I didn’t come back to it.”

Today, in a world dominated by the tweet, a speech of this calibre is amazingly rare (had it occurred today, thousands would be reducing this remarkable oration to four simple words “I have a dream”) — and it towers above most others because it was delivered with so much conviction and passion. Through the use of repetition, rhythm, diction, contrasting metaphors, biblical and historical references, and strong visual images — 70 in all — King crafted a perfect and impassioned speech about racial injustice and the hope for a world of true equality. Greene concludes, “To this day, the emotional impact of this speech reverberates to those who heard it then as well as those who first hear it now. Like the Gettysburg Address, it is a speech with lasting impact.”

For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene, Prentice Hall (2002)

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