Stories about this famous speech
21 August 2023
Season 11, Episode 08
Re-Imagined Radio celebrates the anniversary of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and considers some stories behind its origins, context, delivery, and reception. Dr. King delivered this speech August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King called for equality. For civil and economic rights for all people. And, for an end to racism in the United States.
Originally, titled "Normalcy, Never Again" (Anonymous, "Dream Songs"), Dr. King's speech was forever altered when he went off script and, speaking from his heart, described in several paragraphs his dream for racial equality. Today, Dr. King's renamed "I Have a Dream" speech is considered one of the most powerful speeches of 20th century American history, and a turning point in the civil rights movement.
We explore Dr. King's use of poetry, prose, and preaching in three sections of this speech. The beginning where he sets up the overarching metaphor. The extemporaneous "dream" section, where he outlines his vision of racial justice and equality in America. And the "let freedom ring" section which concludes the speech on an uplifting note.
An estimated 250,000 people heard Dr. King's speech live. Radio storyteller Jean Shepherd was there and shares his experience.
With this episode, we remind listeners that sixty years after its delivery, because of entrenched racism and social injustice, Dr. King's dream is still unrealized.
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Written, Produced, and Hosted by John F. Barber
Sound Design, Music, and Post Production by Marc Rose of Fuse Audio Design
Promotional Graphics by Holly Slocum
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"
Speech given at Washington National Cathedral, March 31, 1968
Inspired by 1852 sermon by Theodore Parker, “Justice and the Conscience.” Parker said,
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
(The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns. Theodore Parker. Tufts)
On August 28, 1963, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his speech, originally titled "Normalcy, Never Again," Dr. King, the nation's leading civil rights activist, called for equality. For civil and economic rights for all people. And, for an end to racism in the United States (Anonymous, "Dream Songs").
This episode of Re-Imagined Radio celebrates the anniversary and considers stories about the origins, context, concept, design, delivery, and reception associated with this speech, one of the most powerful in American history, and the civil rights movement.
We listen to and consider three parts of the "I Have a Dream" speech. The introduction, where Dr. King sets up the overarching metaphor, that of a bad check the marchers have come to Washington to cash.
The "dream" section, where Dr. King outlines his vision of racial justice and equality in America.
And, the "let freedom ring" section, where he concludes his speech on an uplifting note.
In earlier iterations of the "dream" and "let freedom ring" sections, Dr. King experiments with poetry, prose, and the power of language as he prepares for his speech in Washington. We'll listen to some examples.
We point out Dr. King's effective use of poetic, impactful language to bend the curve of moral justice in America.
We listen to radio storyteller Jean Shepherd who was there, and provides his observations and perspective from the crowd of marchers.
And, we remind you that today, sixty years later, Dr. King's dream is still unrealized.
March on Washington
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, AKA, The March on Washington, is held in Washington, D.C., 28 August 1963. Organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the purpose of the march is to advocate for economic (jobs) and civil (freedom) rights for Black Americans. This peaceful show of solidarity is, to date, the largest in American history.
Participants are from around the country. Dressed in Sunday church clothes, they represent all walks of life. They converge at the Washington Monument, on the National Mall, by 10:00 AM. Protest signs are provided by the United Auto Workers Union. Folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez (who traveled to Washington from Spain), Bob Dylan, and The Freedom Singers entertain the growing crowds.
At 12 noon, participants march down Independence and Constitution Avenues to the Lincoln Memorial. They carry signs, and sing (Harbster).
It's a beautiful day for a march. The temperature averages 73 degrees, with the hottest part of the day between 1:00 and 4:00 PM, when the temperature reaches 80 degrees. Cloud conditions are scattered to overcast. Winds are from the South, 9-13 miles per hour (Harbster).
An estimated 250,000 marchers gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial, around the Reflecting Pool, and across the lawns back to the Washington Monument, and beyond. Dressed in suits and dresses, after long hours on their feet, surrounded by overwhelming crowds, people are hot and tired. Many soak their feet in the Reflecting Pool, or fan themselves to keep cool (Harbster).
Marchers listen to prayers, pledges, and benedictions. They are entertained by Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, The Impressions, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, and Odetta. Civil rights activists give speeches.
Opening Remarks are given by Director and Founder of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, A. Philip Randolph (National Archives).
LISTEN to A. Philip Randolph's Opening Remarks ("Speech by A. Philip Randolph"), recorded by Motown Records.
Despite the heat, and their fatigue, the crowd waits, patiently, politely, for the featured speaker, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). The March on Washington official program notes Dr. King as "President, Southern Christian Leadership Council," but provides no title for his speech ("Official Program for the March on Washington"). After an introduction by A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. King begins his speech, and the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. History is made. EXPERIENCE Freedom's Ring: King's "I Have a Dream" Speech at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University website.
Structure of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech
Dr. King's speech for the March on Washington was originally, tentatively, titled, "Normalcy, Never Again" (Anonymous, "Dream Songs"). Three typed pages in length, the speech was to last just four minutes. Instead, inspired, Dr. King left his scripted speech and extemporized the so-called "dream" section, before returning to his scripted "let freedom ring" closing. Dr. King's speech, as delivered, was sixteen minutes in length. It was immediately called the "I Have a Dream" speech. Today, it is one of the most powerful speeches in American history, and a defining moment/monument of the civil rights movement.
According to Jason Miller, author of Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric, Dr. King's speech can be divided, broadly, into three sections. The introduction sets up the overarching metaphor of a "bad check." The "dream" section outlines Dr. King's vision of racial justice and equality in America. The "let freedom ring" section concludes the speech on an uplifting note (Miller 200). Earlier iterations of the "dream" and "freedom" sections show Dr. King experimenting with poetry, prose, and the power of language, efforts that culminate in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Re-Imagined Radio examines each of these three sections in this episode.
In the first paragraph of his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King references President Abraham Lincoln, without saying his name. One hundred years earlier, January 1, 1863, Lincoln abolished the practice of slavery in America, and freed all Black Americans then enslaved, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The setting for Dr. King's speech, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, signals listeners to think of President Lincoln.
King uses poetic word combinations to help his audience visualize what he is saying: "symbolic shadow," "great beacon light of hope," "flames of withering injustice," and "long night of captivity."
With this first paragraph, Dr. King also demonstrates his love of, and skill with poetry, prose, and preaching. Miller says, "Quoting poetry was common in the sermons of the 1960s," and Dr. King actively practiced this connection between poetry and preaching (59-60). King, "consistently presented prose sources as poetry and intentionally rewrote the poetry he presented. His own poetry was embedded in his speeches, masquerading as prose," says Miller (61, 65). More about this as we delve deeper into Dr. King's speech.
Dr. King begins the second paragraph of his speech saying, "But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free." Despite Lincoln’s proclamation one hundred years earlier, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution after the Civil War, King reminds his audience that Black Americans are still denied full civil equality.
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificant words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," Dr. King continues.
Dr. King references the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, comparing both to a promissory note, from which all citizens were to benefit.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead on honoring this sacred obligation, King says America has issued a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
"But we refuse to belive that the bank of justice is bankrupt. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us on demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
In short, the country has not honored its "sacred obligation." Has denied "citizens of color" their promised rights. An outcome Dr. King compares to a "bad check." So, "we've"—King references everyone gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial—come to Washington to collect what is owed.
Mark Mancini says Dr. King's image of a promissory note is suggested by efforts to borrow bail money for people arrested during the recent civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. This involves signing a promissory note (Mancini).
During one protest, Birmingham City Commissioner Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, ordered police to use high-pressure fire hoses and dogs to clear people from Kelly Ingram Park, a central staging area for civil rights demonstrations. Millions of people watched on television as protesters were attacked and arrested. As result, the struggle for racial equality held the nation's attention, and that of President John F. Kennedy. On June 11, 1963, two months prior to Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington, aware that his action might cost him re-election, President Kennedy courageously addressed the nation on civil rights.
President Kennedy's speech was broadcast live on television and radio. Thousands watched and listened as he said . . .
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free. . . .
Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. . . .
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. . . .
I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments. . . .
This seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure, but many do. . . .
This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. . . .
This is what we are talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens. Thank you very much.
LISTEN to President Kennedy's Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, and read the full transcript, at the JFK Library website.
The theme of these opening paragraphs—that people have come to demand long denied freedom and equality—set up the overarching metaphor for the remainder of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech—indeed the entire March on Washington. They also demonstrate the importance Dr. King places on words, their sounds, their expressive combinations, their rhythms and rhymes. Dr. King also draws inspiration from music and poetry (Baldwin 115).
He "believed deeply in the power of poetry," says Miller (Miller 135). Dr. King understands that, "like songs and poems, speeches do not live on paper," Miller says (8). Instead, their presence and power is found in the voice of the speaker.
The "Dream" Section
Remarkably, Dr. King extemporized the most powerful part of his speech, the paragraphs repeating "I have a dream" at their beginning, allegedly responding to a call from gospel singer Mahalea Jackson to "tell them about the dream Martin" (Hansen 57, History, "Mahalia Jackson," History, "March on Washington").
According to Miller, Dr. King needed "a memorable way to communicate the civil right's movement's goal of integration." His "dream" was "both inspirational and unforgettable" (Miller 165).
The inspiration came from the poem "Harlem," by Langston Hughes. Published in 1951, as part of Hughes's book Montage of a Dream Deferred, the 11-line poem reads . . .
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Inspired by his love of poetry (Baldwin 115), and his respect for Hughes, Dr. King, wrote and rewrote his own prose poem, the so-called "dream" refrain.
Hughes was branded a "Communist Sympathizer" by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, an investigative committee of the United States House of Representatives, created in 1938 to investigate private citizens, public employees, and organizations suspected of disloyalty and subversive activities driven by their connection(s) to the Communist Party. King could not admit or openly advocate his friendship with, or respect, for Hughes in his speeches or sermons as any alleged associations with communist sympathies would damage Dr. King and his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the civil rights movement more broadly. So, instead, he "submerged."
Miller says submerging occurs when a speaker "simultaneously invokes a source and seeks to make the source invisible to a particular audience. Submerging is an act of rhetorical and symbolic defiance. It is no small thing to speak truth to power through a voice that power has tried to silence. When the powers fail to see this irony, they are duped. The suppressed voice speaks against their wishes. If members of the audience who identify with the voice that's being suppressed recognize this act of defiance, resisting the oppressor's unjust systems of verbal and political control is seen as testimony that models and thus encourages their own desire to protest. When such acts of subversion are finally recognized by the members in power, submerging holds the potential to embarrass and undress the levels of power the oppressor thought it had the capacity to successfully enforce" (Miller 24).
King exemplifies the practice of submerging, says Miller, because he has so deeply internalized his source of inspiration that he can speak about it as if it were his own. This is exactly what happens when King, responding to a call from Mahalia Jackson, leaves his prepared speech, and extemporizes the paragraphs of the so-called "dream" section of his speech. When he spoke about his dream at the March on Washington, Dr. King was speaking about his vision for a just and equitable country, evolved and internalized in earlier speeches. Much of his dream Dr. King has committed to memory. "The best performers always internalize their scripts" (Miller 55).
Dream Section > First Iteration
The first recorded iteration of King's refrain, "I have a dream," was delivered during a fifty-five minute speech, "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," to the Rocky Mount Voters and Improvement League, in the Booker T. Washington Gymnasium, Rocky Mount, NC, November 27, 1962. King’s Rocky Mount speech is part gospel sermon, part mass meeting, part civil rights, part trial run for the upcoming "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Miller, faculty at North Carolina State University, discovered the original recording and had it restored and digitized. He kindly allowed Re-Imagined Radio to use it for this episode.
Transcript of "Dream" section of Rocky Mount Speech
"And so my friends of Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight.
"It is a dream rooted deeply in the American dream.
"I have a dream that one day down in Sasser County, Georgia, where they burned two churches down a few days ago because Negroes wanted to register and vote, one day right down there little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls and walk the streets as brothers and sisters.
"I have a dream that one day right here in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will meet at the table of brotherhood, knowing that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
"I have a dream that one day men all over this nation will recognize that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.
"I have a dream tonight. One day the words of Amos will become real: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
"I have a dream tonight. One day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. Crooked places will be made straight, and the rough places will be made strange, the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
"I have a dream tonight. One day men will do unto others as they would have others to do unto them.
"I have a dream tonight. One day my little daughter and my two sons will grow up in a world not conscious of the color of their skin but only conscious of the fact that they are members of the human race.
"I have a dream tonight that someday we will be free. We will be free."
Associated Press in Raleigh, North Carolina. Martin Luther King's First I Have a Dream Speech Recording Unearthed. The Guardian, 11 August 2015.
Shelton-Ormond, Charlie. Listen To The First Recording of MLK's 'I Have A Dream' In Rocky Mount In 1962. WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio, 11 Aug. 2015.
Dream Section > Second Iteration
The second recorded iteration of King's refrain, "I have a dream," was delivered at The Detroit Walk to Freedom, 23 June 1963, Detroit, Michigan, six weeks after Rocky Mount, NC. With an estimated 125,000 participants and spectators, this was the largest civil rights demonstration prior to the March on Washington. The march lasted about 90 minutes and concluded with a speech at Cobo Hall by Dr. King (BlackPast).
Transcript of "Dream" section of Detroit Speech
"And so this afternoon, I have a dream. (Go ahead) It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
"I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.
"I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that one day, [Applause] one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.
"I have a dream this afternoon that one day, [Applause] that one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free. I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that there will be a day that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity.
"I have a dream this afternoon (Yeah) that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin. [Applause]
"I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job. [Applause] (That’s right)
"Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and "justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
"I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I have a dream this afternoon. [Applause]
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. [Applause]
"I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.
"And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new 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 with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!" [Applause]
Dream Section > Results
With these ideas, off script but from his heart, Dr. King outlines his vision of racial justice and equality in America in his March on Washington speech. He shares his dream with anyone who identifies with the fight against segregation, discrimination, racism, and violence.
What we remember most about Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, says Jason Miller, is this metaphor of the dream. "It was poetry, not prophecy, that made this moment memorable" (Miller 14).
Momodu, Samuel. Detroit Walk to Freedom (1963). BlackPast, 4 Apr. 2022.
Again following his prepared speech script, Dr. King moves toward the conclusion of his speech, the "freedom" section. Like the "dream" section, Dr. King developed the "freedom" section over time and through iterations.
Freedom Section > First Iteration
For example, speaking at the Holt Street Baptist Church, Dr. King concluded his "Facing the Challenge of a New Age" speech at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, December 3, 1956, Montgomery, Alabama, with these words about freedom. . .
Transcript of "Freedom" section of Montgomery Speech
"If we will join together in doing all of these things we will be able to speed up the coming of the new world—a new world in which men will live together as brothers; a world in which men will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into prunning-hooks; a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes; a world in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. Then we will be able to sing from the great tradition of our nation:
“My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing, Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims pride, From every mountain side, Let freedom ring.”
"This must become literally true. Freedom must ring from every mountain side. Yes, let it ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado, from the prodigious hill tops of New Hampshire, from the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let Freedom ring from every mountain side—from every mole hill in Mississippi, from Stone Mountain of Georgia, from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee, yes, and from every hill and mountain of Alabama. From every mountain side let freedom ring. When this day finally comes “The morning stars will sing together and the suns of God will shout for joy” (King, "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," 1956).
The words about freedom, highlighted in the paragraph above are adapted from Archibald J. Carey, Jr., who used a similar passage in his address to the 1952 Republican National Convention. Carey recited the song "America," AKA “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” and then continued: “That’s exactly what we mean—from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Great Smokies of Tennessee and from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—Not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the persecuted of Europe, for the rejected of Asia, for the disfranchised of South Africa and for the disinherited of all the earth—may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountain side, LET FREEDOM RING!” (Carey).
"Carey's version contains the words, ideas, and theme King used; however, the repetition and cadence came from King's own hand" (Miller 174).
Program for the Institute on Non-violence and Social Change, the annual mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Provides an interactive program from this event.
Freedom Section > Second Iteration
Dr. King reprised these thoughts about freedom for his address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Emancipation Day Rally, Big Bethel AME Church, Atlanta, Georgia, noon, January 1, 1957.
Transcript of "Freedom" section of Atlanta Speech
"Freedom must ring from every mountain side. (Yeah) Yes, go out determined this afternoon, that it will ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. (Yes sir) Let it ring from the prodigious hill tops of New Hampshire. (Yes sir) Let it ring from the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. (Yes sir) Let it ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. (Yes sir) But not only that. From every mountain side (Yeah), let freedom ring. (Yes sir) Yes, let it ring from every mountain and hill of Alabama. (Yeah) Let it ring from every mole hill in Mississippi. (Yeah) Let it ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. (Yeah) Let it ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. (Yeah) From every mountain side, let freedom ring. [applause]" (King, "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," 1957).
Later that same day, Dr. King delivered a (the same?) speech as part of the "Program of the Ninety-Fourth Annual Celebration of the Emancipation of Negroes," at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, where, on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded, killing four young girls and drawing national attention to civil rights unrest in Birmingham, and by extension, throughout the country.
Dr. King's "Facing the Challenge of a New Age" speech, was published in Phylon: The Clark Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, (April 1957, 28, pp. 24-34), a peer-reviewed journal founded by W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University in 1940. It is seen as one of the earliest documents of the so-called "Freedom Movement." Dr. King also explored this theme in two other articles, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” (Fellowship, 23 Feb. 1957, pp. 3-11) and “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” National Baptist Voice, Mar. 1957, pp. 12-13).
After the "I Have a Dream" Speech
On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for a peaceful show of solidarity for full civil rights for Black Americans. The gathering was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, more commonly the March on Washington. It was one, at that time, the largest political rally/demonstration in United States history. The featured speaker was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in what he called the "symbolic shadow" of President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King delivered his now famous "I Have A Dream" speech. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier, in 1863, abolishing the practice of slavery in America and freeing all African Americans shackled by its chains.
Despite Lincoln’s proclamation, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution after the Civil War, African Americans in 1963 were still denied full civil equality. Segregation and discrimination by race were openly practiced.
With his "I Have A Dream" speech Dr. King spoke of a vision of equality, where, as he said, "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.'"
The speech, the vision, delivered by Dr. King at the March on Washington captivated the nation, and the world, with its idea of "the old being tranformed into the new" (Miller 175). But, says Miller, "without the long process of writing and rewriting"—and, it might be added, without the earlier, practice speeches—"King's well-known riffs could never have been spoken with such eloquence and force" (Miller 196).
"When we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every city 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, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'”
READ the complete lyrics of Free at Last at the Negro Spirituals website.
King’s dream was not immediately realized, however. It took a year to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And another to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Despite being formally eliminated, both segregation and discrimination continue present day, nefariously infecting housing and residential opportunities, education, voting rights, jobs, and wages.
Jean Shepherd: Eye/Earwitness
With this episode of Re-Imagined Radio we look, and listen, not only to the conceptualization and delivery of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but also to its reception in the crowd of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Radio storyteller Jean Shepherd, host of "The Jean Shepherd Show," broadcast on New York's WOR radio, 1955 to 1977, was there and provided witness to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Shepherd and others traveled six hours by chartered city bus from New York City to Washington, DC, to participate in the March on Washington. The next day, back in New York, Shepherd recounts his experiences for his radio listeners.
"Shep," as he is known to his fans, rarely uses notes. Instead, his late-night radio stories are mostly improvised, built around humorous anecdotes and commentaries, constantly evolving as he moves from one idea to another.
Shepherd is cited by some as the creator of free-form talk radio. For inspiring Garrison Keiller to develop his own stories about a fictional town called Lake Woebegon in the long-running radio series A Prairie Home Companion. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says he learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.
In addition to his comments on the March on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Shepherd also spoke about another lasting artifact of the Age of Civil Rights, President John F. Kennedy. On November 25, 1963, Shepherd traveled by train from New York to Washington to observe the funeral for President Kennedy. The next day he delivered an impromptu report of what he saw and felt.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered his "I Have Been To the Mountaintop" speech, at Mason Church, in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke in support of the strike by city Sanitation Workers. The ending of King's speech was prescient.
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.""
Twenty four hours later, Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Later that evening, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Robert Kennedy, brother of the late President John F. Kennedy (assassinated November 22, 1968), was campaigning for his own run at the presidency. Learning of Dr. King's murder, Kennedy made an announcement to a group of people. Listen to RFK Speaks After MLK Killed YouTube History.
Many thought Dr. King, as a advocate for civil rights, and his dream for equality and justice, would be silenced. Dr. King's dream did not die, however. And he has not been silenced. Both Dr. King and his dream continue to inspire. His "I Have A Dream" speech is considered one of the most significant American speeches of the twentieth century. Dr. King’s vision of a more just, moral, equal, and better America, although not realized, still resonates as a best vision of ourselves as a nation.
Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is a prominent historical event, a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. But, as Joseph W. Wenzel reminds us, "we should endeavor to understand and evaluate it on its own terms as a real response to a particular situation," (Wenzel 179). As a response to real world events, Dr. King's vision of equality, civil and economic rights for all people, and an end to racism, still resonates as a national vision. HIS dream remains OUR hope.
Anonymous. A Summary and Analysis of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech. Interesting Literature, 2022,
Anonymous. Dream Songs: The Music of the March on Washington. The New Yorker, 28 Aug. 2013.
Anonymous. King's First Dream, 27 November 1962.
Anonymous. King's Speech, Season. Smithsonian Institute, 9 Feb. 2022.
Baldwin, Lewis. There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortress Press, 1991.
Carey, Archibald. “Address to the Republican National Convention,” 8 July 1952, Archibald James Carey Collection, Chicago History Museum, Chicago, IL.
READ an entry about Archibald Carey, Jr. at Stanford University's The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
Cherches, Todd. Dr. Martin Luther King—The "King" of Visual Communication. Duarte, N.D.
Hanson, Drew D. The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. HarperCollins, 2003.
Harbster, Jennifer. A Beautiful Day for a March. Library of Congress Blogs, Inside Adams, 4 Sep. 2013.
History.com Editors. Mahalia Jackson Prompts Martin Luther King Jr. To Improvise 'I Have a Dream' Speech. History, A&E Television Networks.
History. March on Washington. 10 Jan. 2023.
Kennedy, John F. Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, June 11, 1963.
Transcript and audio file.
King, Martin Luther. Facing the Challenge of a New Age. 3 Dec. 1956. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
Address Delivered at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. Provides an annotated transcript of this speech.
King, Martin Luther. Facing the Challenge of a New Age. 1 Jan. 1957. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
Address Delivered at NAACP Emancipation Day Rally. Provides a transcript of and annotations for this speech, as well as a note that the transcript was taken from a recording of a live broadcast by WERD radio, Atlanta, GA.
King, Martin Luther. I Have a Dream. Learn Out Loud.
King, Martin Luther. I've Been to the Mountaintop. YouTube.
Mancini, Mark. 7 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have A Dream' Speech. Mental Floss, 20 Jan. 2020.
Miller, Jason W. Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric. University Press of Florida, 2015.
RFK Speaks After MLK Killed. YouTube. History.
Speech by A. Philip Randolph - Live in Washington, D.C. From The Great March On Washington. Motown Records.
See also: A Philip Randolph For Jobs and Freedom. YouTube.
Official Program for the March on Washington (1963). National Archive. Milestone Documents.
Wenzel, Joseph W. "A Dangerous Unselfishness: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Speech at Memphis, April 3, 1968: A Response to Osborne." Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric. Edited by Michael C. Leff and Fred J. Kauffeld. Hermagoras Press, 1989, pp. 167-179.
Special thanks to Maureen Keller, Syliva Lindman, and Brenda Alling for promoting this episode of Re-Imagined Radio.
READ their Press Release
I Have A Dream web poster by Holly Slocum (240 x 356)
I Have A Dream cover graphic by Holly Slocum (820 x 360)
I Have A Dream landscape poster by Holly Slocum (1910 x 1080)
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Name: I Have A Dream
Subtitle: Stories about the famous speech
Description: Re-Imagined Radio celebrates the anniversary of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and considers some stories behind its origins, context, delivery, and reception.
Program type: Episodic
Media type: Radio broadcast, live stream, podcast
Premier broadcast and live stream: 21 August 2023, KXRW-FM (Vancouver, WA), KXRY-FM (Portland, OR)
Recording availability: Podcast
Recording specs: Audio, MP3, stereo, 44.1Hz, 256kbps
Recording name: rir-i-have-a-dream.mp3
Categories: radio, drama, documentary, performance, story, non-fictional
Keywords: radio drama, storytelling, documentary, martin, luther, king, dream, washington
Script: John F. Barber
Producer/Host: John F. Barber
Sound Design/Music Composition: Marc Rose