Martin Luther King: The Speech

August 28, 2013 • 5:17 am

If you’ve already Googled something today, you’ll have seen this:

Picture 1And you’ll know what it’s commemorating. (I swear that the guy in the doodle looks more like Obama than King, and I think it is—a sign of how far we’ve come.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most famous speech of our times: Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, given at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. on August 28, 1963. Although I lived in the D.C. suburbs then, I was too young to be a political activist, and thus missed the chance to hear this live.  But I’ve heard it many times since, and you should listen to it today (it’s about 17 minutes) not only for its immense historical value, but because it’s the greatest piece of rhetoric I’ve ever heard. Notice how his use of repetition accentuates his message. (And find the one bit lifted from Shakespeare.)

Most of us don’t remember the times when segregation was simply a fact of life, but when I got to college in Virginia in 1967, I noticed in that in the bus station there were two bathrooms for each sex, and two water fountains. Only later did I realize that those were the old “black” and “white” bathrooms and fountains, from which the signs had recently been removed.

It now seems impossible to imagine that it was illegal for blacks to share bathrooms and water fountains with whites. Those times have gone forever, at least in the civilized world. As King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I’d urge readers to close their eyes and take a few minutes to listen to the speech, remembering that when it was given it was necessary.

The Speech proper starts 48 seconds into this video.

You can download the full text of King’s speech from the National Archives. And, over at Panda’s Thumb, reader Joe Felsenstein (a renowned evolutionary biologist and quite the radical when young) has posted his reminiscences of attending the March on Washington and hearing King’s speech live.

69 thoughts on “Martin Luther King: The Speech

  1. MSNBC has announced that it is making a broadcast of a tape of the entire speech tonight (Wednesday the 28th), something they claim that, because the King family has very closely held the rights to such a replay, is a rare event.

    It’s not mentioned in the program listings I have available, but I think it’s going to be on at nine PM EDT. You’ll have to catch the channel during the day to see their promos for the event.

  2. I’m surprised the full text is available free. The speech is copyrighted and the copyright is held by the King family (proceeds are used for civil rights work, apparently).

    1. In the light of the message in his speech, I think it should be considered as common property.

      I look at it as a part of the world’s cultural heritage and it has had a huge impact not only in America.

      1. I agree with you (everything you wrote); but the US courts have not. They have upheld the King family copyright.

  3. I have listened to this speech many times and I am always awed by it. Who could not be moved hearing it?

    A little off topic, living in Canada I don’t see this doodle on the Google search page. My search automatically goes to google.ca and Google in their wisdom has decided MLK is not of interest to Canadians. Sometimes if I override the URL and substitute .com I get the US page but not today. Strange.

    1. Same for google.se, it doesn’t show you used to be able to override.

      And it isn’t yet in the doodle archive. Google need to fix this now.

  4. The bit liftd from Shakespeare:

    this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and opportunity

    1. Lifted? Inspired by and modified for, I’d say. And much from the bible as well, of course. And Shakespeare borrowed freely from the bible and other sources as well.

      1. Yes I agree. I was merely answering the “contest” laid out by our host, reusing his own terms 😉

        (And find the one bit lifted from Shakespeare.)

        1. Indeed when reading Shakespeare I got the Classical references but had to buy a reference of biblical references because I was such a heathen.

              1. Aren’t there studies which show that atheists know more about religion than religious people do? Is anybody really surprised by this?

  5. I can’t see it over in the UK / Ireland either. And going to Google.com still doesn’t reveal it. So it must be very specific to certain US pages only.

      1. In the great Amuricun capitalist system, I gather one can pay a fee and buy the video and a transcript?

        Do the heirs of anyone else who gave a speech similarly charge a fee, or do they have a Bigger Picture view of the matter?

  6. I agree completely that this is the greatest speech of “our” time (confession: I was not then alive). I am, however, disturbed by the Disney-fication of Dr. King, and how his aggressive calls for wealth redistribution have been lost in the mists of time. I am far from the first to note it, but it’s amazing how the radical is transmogrified in to the saint over time. It’s a good hierarchical trick.

    1. Not to mention that his anti-war movement activities with regard to Vietnam are totally overlooked today. A hierarchical trick indeed.

    2. This is exactly correct. His left-wing politics and activism have been painted over by all sides, who want to rub shoulders with Dr. King’s legacy. Bad history: Common in the US.

      1. They’re not “painting over” it. They’re just ignoring the aspects of King’s politics they don’t agree with. Same as, say, people tend to ignore Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of eugenics and sterilization and focus instead her pioneering work in making contraception available to women.

        1. I feel like there’s a very real difference between the legacies (or meta-legacies, to sound obnoxious) of Dr. King and Margaret Sanger; namely that the former has passed in to this secular sainthood whereby he is claimed by all sides of the political discourse. Margaret Sanger is still a controversial figure for precisely the reasons you present, and the current “right wing” (for lack of a better term) want nothing to do with her, and certainly don’t try to align themselves with her legacy. They do, however, try to align themselves with Dr. King–and arguing about a historical figure’s merits within the context of his or her times is a very different thing than trying to assume his or her mantle, so to speak.

          1. Yes, obviously there’s a difference. But the point is that there are few if any pure political heroes. MLK is deservedly beloved for his civil rights work, but his broader political agenda that included things like full employment and a guaranteed income has never been popular.

        2. I can see the point here to some degree. However, the fact is that even the major so-called “liberal media” sources usually gloss over the details of King’s struggles regarding the labor movement, the anti-war movement, and the addressing of income inequality (all certainly relevant today). The fact that major media sources and politicians they might disagree with these activities is no surprise. The news media is meant to be unbiased of course. The political left used to care about these issues more, but over the past few decades the Democrats have moved steadily toward the right on some of these issues making them basically a centrist party.
          I don’t think the comparison with eugenics is fair, since many people still hold to these lesser-known views of Dr. King: not a fringe group by any means.

          1. The political left used to care about these issues more, but over the past few decades the Democrats have moved steadily toward the right on some of these issues making them basically a centrist party.

            Yes. And not just the Democrats in the U.S., but the political left in Europe and elsewhere has also moved to the center on economic issues. Look at “New Labour” in Britain, the decline of the old-style Communist parties in continental Europe, and the shift to market economics in countries like Russia and China. So it’s hardly surprising that MLK’s economic agenda has not been an important part of his legacy.

            1. Obviously I agree with regard to the general change in the political wind, as it were, but it’s not just King’s positions that would today be seen as outside the mainstream where this effect takes hold. For instance, a cornerstone of the “I Have a Dream” speech was about an increase in the minimum wage, and yet I cannot imagine MLK being invoked today for that proposition. I am saying it is not just that King’s economic and political sides have been forgotten, but that they have been actively suppressed in favor of the milquetoast non-violent activist (something I think the entire culture “did,” so to speak, not any particular group).

              1. “Actively suppressed?” I think that’s ridiculous. King’s economic agenda isn’t discussed much because, unlike his vision of racial equality, it simply isn’t popular or influential.

              2. MLK advocated a basic income. Not the same thing as a minimum wage. And that was just one element of a much broader economic agenda, anyway. King’s involvement in the movement for economic reform hasn’t been “suppressed.” It’s just overshadowed by his much more important role as the leader of the civil rights movement.

  7. I once taught at a predominantly hispanic school (>90% Mexican-American). I found that the students had a profoundly greater confidence in their academic skills than those who were in schools that were reversed, i.e., 5% hispanic.

    I also had opportunities to teach girls science (and only girls). I noted that they had fewer inhibitions toward the subject than when they were surrounded by boys.

    I have often wondered wether segregation, in some limited circumstances in our present society, could be beneficial? I also wonder if MLK would have used a Mac?

    And this is the greatest speech made by any human, so far.

    1. i hear this kind of thing often, and it makes me wonder whether these improvements in student performance are mostly due to the fact that it becomes impossible for the teachers to ignore their non-white or non-male students.
      I also worry that kids from these schools are missing out on chances to interact with people who have different perspectives on the world.

      1. You have a point – I did read that teachers are more apt to pick boys to answer questions than girls. I for one don’t like segregation of any sort as it allows us to fall back on tribalism too easily & to objectify the “other”. It’s why I don’t like gender based separation of children for things that don’t require it (girl/boy scouts). In this I may be a radical.

        1. I have mixed feelings myself. I teach at an all-boys school but have only taught here so I can’t compare. We had electives a few years ago and many of the boys took knitting. Would this have happened had girls been around? I do think there are pros and cons – both sides have good arguments.

      2. I think of Sidney Poitier who spent most of his first fifteen years in the Bahamas to come to America ‘congealed’ (to his own words), and he had/s remarkable strength. I think his perspective was strengthened by his experience, an experience at youth that was not inundated with the prejudices he would later usurp with his talent. He could look past them because of his remarkable strength he built in his youth.

        But it is a complicated question of whether or not society, as it educates its citizens, would benefit from some forms of segregation: cultural, gender, or race.

  8. Just this morning, they had a segment on the speech on NPR (part of a week-long series, leading up to the annivesary, today: NPR is very good). They noted that as King was standing at the lectern, starting his speech, Mahalia Jackson (a close friend of King’s) shouted to him to “tell them about the dream!” several times. He was seen to push his prepared speech to the side of the lectern and he ad-libbed the dream portion of the speech.

    Amazing extemporaneous speaker!

    His close confidant, Clarence Jones*, when he saw King push aside the speech, said to those around him: “Now you’re going to get some preaching!”

    (* Most of the NPR series was built around interviews with Jones.)

    1. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard or read that he had given versions of the ‘Dream’ speech on several previous occasions, but I wasn’t there either. The version recorded is definitive, as far as I’m concerned.

      1. You are correct: Ms. Jackson was referring to an earlier speech Dr. King had delivered in her presence; and she was urging him to use those same images. (And “they” consider this version the definitive one as well, as you noted.)

  9. “It now seems impossible to imagine that it was illegal for blacks to share bathrooms and water fountains with whites. Those times have gone forever, at least in the civilized world.”

    Yes, now we segregate by net worth.

    1. Too many U.S. citizens never tire of spouting how the U.S. is the “greatest country in the world,” and bloviate about “American Exceptionalism.” On a personal level one would be easily-enough labelled a braggart for indulging in such intense, sustained bloviating. We’re also allegedly the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright liked to repeat. We would have been a little more “exceptional” than we are had we not also had – like many if not most civilizations – slavery. As it is, we can only fall back on, “They did it too!”

      1. The U.S. is exceptional in a number of important ways, as many commentators have pointed out over the years, from de Tocqueville on. Its exceptionalism is probably in decline, though, as other countries copy our ways of doing things and become increasingly Americanized.

        1. The only way the United States is exceptional is in equability.

          It’s a self-centered ridiculous position to think that the United States is exceptional.

          1. The U.S. is exceptional among the nations of the world in wealth, military power, political power, cultural influence, scientific research, technological prowess and other ways.

            1. No the United States isn’t exceptional but, a nation in its terrible twos were it imagines itself to be better than others.

            2. And so were the USSAR 50 years ago, the UK 100 years ago, the Arab Peninsula, Iran and China a 1000 years ago, India 1500 years ago and Greece 2000 years ago. It is just a historic inevitability that different parts of the world emerge as “world leaders” in different times. What I don’t get is the belief that some of the “American exceptionalism” crowd is why they believe that this spatial ‘exceptionalism’ is also somehow temporal.

        2. Whatever list of commentators (commenters?) to which you may refer, does it include Richard Hofstadter (“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”), H.L. Mencken, Susan Jacoby (“The Age of American Unreason”), and Mark Twain (particularly regarding his view on the U.S. war on and 40-plus occupation of the population of the Philippines)?

          1. I’m not sure about those three commentators (yes, commentators) specifically, but it includes many historians and political pundits.

            The U.S. is undeniably exceptional in a number of important respects. It’s a matter of empirical fact. I listed some of them above.

            1. Well, one could not “be sure” about these three (or four) unless and until one had read not a little of them.

              To whatever extent the U.S. is reasonably and appropriately “exceptional,” there remains Amuricuns’ tendency to frequently brag on how exceptional – how great – Amuricuh is.

              Whether on an individual or national level, don’t you think it the better, more prudent, and less hubristic and egotistical and narcissistic, course of action to let others do the bragging on oneself?

            2. I’ve read several books by Twain and one by Jacoby. I still don’t understand why you think those specific writers are relevant to my point. Are you denying that the U.S. is exceptional in the ways I listed (among others)? If so, I can produce facts and figures to demonstrate that you’re wrong.

              1. I don’t deny that the U.S. has been significantly exceptional in certain respects over time. What I have clearly objected to in posts is the overbearing, overweening, self-regarding bragging on the collective self in which too many Americans indulge. I’m all for giving credit where credit is due; it just sounds better if it comes from some third party than from ones own self.

                Regareding the relevance of Twain, and your mentioning American military power as a source of exceptionalism: were his several books you read works of fiction? I refer to his non-fiction, particularly his critique of U.S. involvement in the Philippines as a consequence of the Spanish-American War. Why didn’t the U.S. simply liberate, and not subjugate, the Filipinos? This American behavior may have been somehow “exceptional,” but certainly not in an admirable way. (Ditto the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada.)

                What book by Jacoby did you read? Her “Freethinkers”? The substance of her “American Unreason” is relevant to the issue of Americans’ infatuation with their own exceptionalism.

                The American Legion beats the drum for “100% Americanism,” a phrase synonymous with “American Exceptionalism.” I briefly belonged to the organization but was turned off by this “100%” malarkey. I’ve gotten several mailings over time attempting to woo me back into the fold with (truly “exceptional”) commercial and consumerist discounts and the like. Never one word stating and defending its exceptionalistic ideology.

              2. I have clearly objected to in posts is the overbearing, overweening, self-regarding bragging on the collective self in which too many Americans indulge.

                Well, since you haven’t provided any actual examples of this, your complaint is pretty vacuous. You simply seem to be annoyed at any expression the view that the U.S. is exceptional or better than other countries.

      2. Bill Maher does a bit on this. He has also compared this to statements like “my wife is the best wife in the world”. He questions why does your wife have to be “best in the world”; why can’t she just be “the wife who is best for me”.

    2. Yes, now we segregate by net worth.

      What do you mean, “now?” People have always been segregated by wealth. The rich live in better houses in better neighborhoods, eat in better restaurants, stay in better hotels, send their children to better schools, see better doctors in better hospitals, and so on. If you think you’re ever going to stop this, good luck.

      1. “I have a dream.” It doesn’t need to be completely equal in all respects but, the huge and totally undesired disparity that is in place in the United States must end. It can be changed and must be changed.

        1. You may not desire it, but apparently there aren’t enough people who agree with you to change it. And the obvious response to your “it must be changed” assertion is, “Why?”

          1. Correction, there aren’t enough people that understand the economic inequality isn’t a necessary result but manipulation of markets and regulations.

            So you will be more unhappy.

            1. No, economic inequality is the inevitable result in a free society of the enormous variation in productivity. Some people are simply much more talented and/or hardworking than others. People who are willing and able to produce things that other people value highly are likely to get rich. See Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling, for example.

              1. No, in the United States it’s about being bold enough to screw over others and still being able to live with yourself. See Bill Gates, Mittens and others. The economic policy is built to grossly advantage those that have lots of money. It isn’t the level field you are attempting to paint. The United States is exceptionally immoral in that way.

              2. I didn’t say it was a level playing field. I’m rebutting your absurd claim that economic inequality is the result of “manipulation of markets and regulations.” Even if the playing field were perfectly level, which is impossible, there’d still be massive economic inequality for the reason I explained. Even the countries that go the furthest in redistributing wealth still have massive inequality. There are billionaires and homeless people even in Sweden.

  10. I consider MLK’s rhetoric as good as Ciceros or Caesar’s. Hopefully, he also enjoys the same endurance.

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