What is Martin Luther King complaining about?

Background current

Sibylle Machat

Sybille Machat, Dr., Research Associate at the English Department of the University of Flensburg.

Martin Luther King's speech I have a dream is the figurehead of the American civil rights movement and stands like no other for the evils of racial segregation and inequality. Quotes from her are ubiquitous in American political and social life. It is considered (along with a speech by President Lincoln in 1863) to be the best of America's top 100 political speeches. In 2008, according to a survey, 97 percent of American students were able to correctly assign excerpts from her to King and his cause. Why is it that this particular speech is inscribed in the collective memory?

August 1963: The US civil rights activist Martin Luther King waves to his supporters at the rally at the March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The historical context

It is August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. Over 200,000 people have gathered on the steps and in the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. You followed the call for a "March on Washington for Work and Freedom" to demonstrate for racial equality and against discrimination. The protest march is broadcast on television and radio not only in the USA but also in Europe. From the attention it receives, the march can "compete with the moon landing" (William G. Thomas). The final speaker is the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr.

The "March on Washington" arose from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; she campaigned for an end to racial discrimination against African Americans. After the liberation of the slaves by President Lincoln (1862/63), the end of the Civil War (1865) and the reconstruction phase (1877), states in the southern United States introduced racial segregation ("separate but equal"), primarily a legally required separation between African Americans and whites in all areas of public life, such as in schools, restaurants or buses. It brought with it far-reaching disadvantage as well as discrimination and violence against Afro-Americans and also against Asians and Latin Americans. The United States Supreme Court in 1954 enacted the end of racial segregation in the southern public school system. This ruling and the fierce opposition to its implementation revived the stalled African American civil rights movement and ushered in a period of civil disobedience in which African Americans rebelled against segregation and discrimination outside of the state school system. The "March on Washington" represented a high point in the activities of the civil rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the central figures of this movement.

Martin Luther King

"I am [...] the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher. The church is my life and I have given my life to the church" - this is how King characterized himself. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. After finishing school, he attended the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for three years, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in theology. He then studied systematic theology at Boston University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1955.

King advocated the civil rights movement early on. By the time he became a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, he had already shown such a talent for speech and organization that in December 1955 he was made head of the first major nonviolent protest of the African-American civil rights movement. This was a boycott of Montgomery public transport that lasted 382 days.

In late 1963, King was retired from the magazine Time voted "Man of the Year"; In 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Between 1957 and his assassination on April 4, 1968, King traveled more than 6 million miles and made more than 25,000 speeches. At the same time, he always found time to fulfill his role as a preacher. The civil rights movement and Christian teaching were closely linked in his life and philosophy.

The speech

The "March on Washington" was carried out jointly by many different organizations. Since almost all of them were allowed to provide a speaker, the program was very long. Therefore, the requirement was that no speech should last longer than five minutes. Civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, in charge of the program, selected King as the last speaker to give him a chance to miss his speaking time without messing up the program. King therefore prepared a somewhat longer speech. What he finally said on the podium, with a duration of 17 minutes, exceeded the allotted time frame by a considerable amount.

The first half of King's speech is largely identical to his manuscript. In it he is about the liberation of the slaves by Abraham Lincoln 100 years ago and about the fact that the African Americans are still not really free. He speaks of racial segregation and the fundamental injustice it represents, of economic inequality, of the goals that are to be achieved, and the difficult circumstances and times that some of the demonstrators who were present went through. And he urges them to carry on, trusting "that undeserved suffering is redeeming".

At this point King deviates from his prepared text and presents the visionary approach that has given the speech such a symbolic character: "That is why I tell you, my friends, that I still have a dream, although we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow . […] I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners on the red hills of Georgia will be able to sit down together at the Brotherhood's table. […] I have a dream that my four little ones Children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the nature of their characters. I have a dream! "

Several books and reports on the "March on Washington" anecdotally mention that the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson King shouted "tell them about the dream" and that this caused King to deviate so radically from his manuscript and give a much longer speech . It can be proven that King did not formulate the famous statements about his dream of a future America spontaneously, but that he had spoken of this dream several times before. Over the years he had accumulated a supply of speech fragments and speech substitutes that he could fall back on. This enabled him to respond to the reactions of his audience and deviate from his prepared texts without losing eloquence or having to improvise.

King's metaphors and comparisons are heavily biblical. He quotes the Bible directly twice (Amos 5:24 and Isaiah 40: 4) and metaphors referring to the Bible appear in several places in the speech. Also structurally, King’s speech is similar in parts of the Bible. The Bible is full of parallel constructions in which two related thoughts follow each other to reinforce the overall impression. King adopts these parallel constructions: based on whole sentences, in individual metaphorical descriptions ("mistreated by the storms of persecution and swayed by the winds of police violence") and in the repetition of sentences in successive parts of thoughts or speeches, e. B. in the repetition of the time span in the following sentences: "100 years later the life of the negro is unfortunately still restricted by the handcuffs of racial segregation and the chains of discrimination. 100 years later the negro still lives on a lonely island of poverty in the middle of a vast, vast ocean of material prosperity. "

King's way of speaking

Drew Hansen writes: "The first quality of King's style of delivery that struck all those members of the audience who had never heard a black preacher must have been the way he used his voice." King begins his speech in Washington remarkably slowly, pulling vowels and consonants apart in the first few words and inserting unnatural pauses between individual parts of the sentence. The first sentence of his speech: "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" thus contains the following ties (_), lengths and breaks (// ): "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."

What is also immediately noticeable is the monotony with which King begins his speech: Up to the word "history", King speaks on one pitch, only with the "day" in "today" does his voice rise briefly. Then it immediately returns to its original pitch, the next change is made with a lowering in the last syllable of "nation". This initial monotony is not due to the fact that King is not a good speaker, but because he consciously chooses the sound of his voice, his intonation, modulation and speaking speed in order to create certain effects. He also used unexpected pauses, e.g. B. to emphasize individual words or to point out periods of time: "But one hundred years later ... ... ... the negro ... still ... ... ... is not free." These pauses and breaks are, as Hansen explains, "part of an oratory process that he perfected in the pulpit".

King's speaking speed increases whenever he comes to a part of his speech that is connected by parallel constructions, only to slow down again afterwards. This higher speed creates an impression of unity and dynamism. They are also united by the rhythm that he gives these parts of the speech by emphasizing the rhythmic fundamentals of his sentences through pauses and emphasizing stressed syllables.

With all these dynamics, King remains relatively monotonous in terms of timbre and tonal range in the first, the planned part of the speech. This only changes in the second - spontaneous - part, where - as Hansen believes - he gives "an improvised sermon" which becomes a "vocal masterpiece". Here he makes full use of his vocal range, alternating between baritone and tenor voice and working with vibrato. Clarence Jones, one of his co-workers, recognized what was to come as soon as King pushed his prepared text aside: "From his body language and the sound of his voice, I recognized that Martin was about to become the outstanding Baptist preacher to transform who he was. […] I leaned over to the person next to me and said, 'The people […] don't know yet, but they are about to go to church'. " What follows is King's spontaneous portrayal of a future vision that becomes an ideal of the civil rights movement and by which American society is measured to this day.

School children from Washington take part in the demonstration to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington in August 2013. A boy holds a picture of Martin Luther King. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


The extraordinary thing is that King succeeds in his speech demanding civil rights for African Americans without raising any mood against the white population of the USA. He combines ideas from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence with the concerns of African Americans and states that the United States will only meet its founding ideals if the rights claimed in the Declaration of Independence are for all Citizens apply. King - according to Eric Sundquist - "embodies [...] the courage, compassion and visionary idealism that must be awakened in many in order for justice to prevail and equality to be achieved. And at a special moment King shapes these qualities into timeless words."

Today there are works of art of all kinds that are provided with excerpts from the speech. There are also bookmarks, postage stamps, wall tattoos, T-shirts and underwear. Terms from King's speech - especially the emblematic "I have a Dream!" - are used for political campaigns. There is an attempt to transfer King's altruism, integrity and sincerity to other concerns and freedom movements around the world are still making "I have a Dream!" own as a catchphrase.

In Sydney, Australia, a graffiti "I have a Dream" and a portrait of Kings with the flag of the Australian aborigines connects the Aboriginal striving for recognition and equality with the concerns and speech of Kings. Eric Sundquist vividly describes how the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing tried to use the activating and unifying effect of the speech under the slogan "One World, One Dream". UNICEF collected under the title I have a dream ... New Millennium, New Hope Money for Ethiopian Children and in the 2008 American presidential campaign, many parallels were drawn between Barack Obama and King through the use of I have a Dream. Among other things, Oprah Winfrey promoted Obama by saying: "Dr. King dreamed the dream [...], now the dream can be chosen into reality."

The song released in 1979 I have a dream The Swedish pop group ABBA is often creatively remixed with King's speech and lines from King's speech are so present in everyday and common knowledge that they can easily be alluded to in parodies. B. in: "I have a dream [...] that one day men will no longer have to cook, only have to grill" or "that one day all my computer programs will be able to sit down and play together on my PC" (David Strom). This omnipresence and this extremely high recognition value distinguish King's speech from other speeches of the 20th century.

"If what you just said is on the front pages of every major newspaper in the world the next day, then that is an indication that something historical has happened there," wrote Clarence Jones on August 28, 1963. Before his Speaking at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. is a well-known man - when he leaves the lectern he is part of American history. His speech becomes part of the collective auditory memory of the 20th century.


David A. Bobbitt: The Rhetoric of Redemption. Kenneth Burke’s Redemption Drama and Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I have a Dream" Speech, Oxford 2004

Frederick W. Haberman (Ed.): Nobel Lectures. Peace 1951-1970, Amsterdam 1972

Drew D. Hansen: The Dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, New York City 2003

Clarence B. Jones: Behind the Dream. The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation, New York 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr .: I have a dream, http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/soc/traum.htm (English version: www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm)

David Strom: I have a Dream, Web Informant 2002, http://strom.com/awards/296.html

Eric J. Sundquist: King’s Dream, New Haven 2009

William G. Thomas III: Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle: The Views in Virginia and Mississippi, Southern Spaces 2004, http://southernspaces.org/2004/television-news-and-civil-rights-struggle-views-virginia -and-mississippi

Mervyn A Warren: King came preaching. The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Downers Grove, IL 2001

This article was published in the anthology "Sound of the Century, Noise, Tones, Voices - 1889 to today". Editors: Gerhard Paul, Ralph Schock, pages: 634, date of publication: 2013, unaltered reprint 2017, place of publication: Bonn, order number: 3970 .