“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.
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. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Few speeches have been as often quoted or anthologized as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We would be remiss, in the study of the best short form literature available, if we didn’t include it on our reading list.
Happy Martin Luther King Day! Have you ever read the entire speech? This week we’ll be looking at speeches, letters and essays related to civil rights. Please share your thoughts with our group!
You can find King’s speech HERE.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
If you found King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech meaningful, here is an OPTIONAL second Wednesday piece:
King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
‘The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained “A Call for Unity”: a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.
The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can’t Wait:
“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” (Wikipedia)
for discussion: what elements of rhetoric does Martin Luther King Jr. use in his writing to persuade and excite the listener?
For Further Study . . .
Listen to “The Idea of Ancestry” by the poet Etheridge Knight, written from his jail cell in 1968.
The Idea of Ancestry1Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 blackfaces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stareacross the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I knowtheir dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece(she sends me letters written in large block print, andher picture is the only one that smiles at me).I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just tookoff and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each yearwhen the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness inthe clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is noplace in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”2Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brownhills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electricmessages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quittingthe cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / Ihitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and amonkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the oldland and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran outand my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmotherand split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almostcontented / I had almost caught up with me.(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and whenthe falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunkand stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no childrento float in the space between. -Etheridge Knight
And . . .check out The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
. . .A bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. . . .
Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. ] In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”.
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.
King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.¹