The Inspirations Behind "I Have a Dream"

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Aerial view of the 1963 March on Washington, looking north from the Washington Monument. (Martin S. Trikosko/Library of Congress)

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Aerial view of the 1963 March on Washington, looking north from the Washington Monument. (Martin S. Trikosko/Library …

On Aug. 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people peaceably gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Attendant celebrities lent their Hollywood credentials. The media coverage was international. More than 22,000 police officers, guards, soldiers, and paratroopers were placed on alert.

Yet all this has been submerged into the backdrop to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words in "I Have a Dream." The speech was an afterthought, one that King crafted in the final hours before the momentous convocation, working its rhythms like a poem. It is one of the finest speeches delivered on American soil — the distillation of Old Testament wisdom, Shakespearean drama, the Founding Fathers' vision, and King's own sermons and his emergent understanding of what it meant to be free, equal, and American.

With the help of Stanford University's King Papers Project, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and "Voice of Deliverance" author Keith Miller, the following is an examination of key passages in "I Have a Dream" and a look at the historic origins that shaped them.

The "greatest demonstration in history"

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom still ranks as the largest civil rights assembly in the country's history. Before then, America's largest demonstration had been in 1925, when an estimated 35,000 Ku Klux Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. King's powerful oration was the "first of its kind" broadcast live on all three networks and around the world via the Telstar satellite.

"Five score years ago": Abraham Lincoln and Psalms

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King noted the Emancipation Proclamation's centennial but referenced the first line — and its ideals — from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." King linked democratic values to biblical imagery of hellfires and then salvation, notably Psalms 30:5: "For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning."

The "chains of discrimination": Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, John Donne, and Exodus

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This passage packs in several key literary influences. Abolitionists long evoked the images of chains to depict slavery's dehumanizing nature. Frederick Douglass did so in his oft-repeated historic speech "The Meaning of of July Fourth for the Negro." King's link to Douglass is even more fundamental, points out Arizona State University English professor Keith Miller, author of "Voices of Deliverance." Douglass "basically uses the Bible and the Declaration of Independence to indict slavery." Other speakers who linked the Bible with America's founding documents included journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, who also alluded to the lyrics of the patriotic song "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" ("America"). 

King, who wrote of the "paralyzing chains of conformity" in his pivotal "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," also referred to "twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty" in that letter. In this speech, though, the single man on the "lonely island of poverty" harks back to John Donne's renowned poem, "No Man Is An Island."

The notion of the exile points to Exodus — when the Jews lived in exile — and an allegory that King evokes throughout "I Have a Dream."

To "cash a check": The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Clarence B. Jones

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Besides the two documents that laid out America's foundation, this passage includes a more contemporary metaphor about check-cashing and a promissory note. This decidedly mundane metaphor was suggested by his counsel and speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones. The religious link, however, reinforces the principles of equality not just as a contract but, as many scholars point out, as a covenant — a moral right, as much as a civil one.

The "Negro's legitimate discontent": Shakespeare, Gospel, and blunt words

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"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York." The homage to William Shakespeare's play "Richard III" is clear. Scholars have dug for more comparisons — the troubled relationship between brothers Richard and Edward is echoed in the troubled relationships between black and white brothers.

In the midst of Shakespearean allusions and Gospel-tinged language ("whirlwinds of revolt"), King plunks a cliché-laden sentence smack in the middle ("blow off steam," "rude awakening," "business as usual"). It's as though he has stepped off the trail to the mountaintop for a moment for some blunt talk.

"[U]ntil justice rolls down like water": Old Testament prophets

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The audience of 1963 would have been far more versed in the Bible then today's secular audiences.  The next few passages dip heavily into the Old Testament, from Jeremiah to Amos. King's talk about suffering finally gets to a New Testament reference, one he touched on his 1959 sermon “Unfulfilled Hopes” on the Apostle Paul. And in his repeated urgings to "go back" lay the sorrowful hope of Exodus — the dream of home.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident": Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson wrote those key words in the Declaration of Independence, which King cited here. Of course, Jefferson was an active slave owner. But here, King is following the precedent that Abraham Lincoln established with the Gettysburg Address: He extended the Declaration and transformed it into an accountability doctrine to amend the Constitution.

The Constitution permitted slavery and the slave trade. There’s nothing explicit about privacy, sexual orientation, nor racial equality. The Constitution even rewarded the South's political power by counting slaves as a fraction of one person, which greased census numbers.

“[It] had no legal power as a source to justify the moral imperative of blocking the expansion of slavery, and later, for emancipation,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

"I have a dream": Sermon on the Mount and the Declaration of Independence

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King told an interviewer that he ad-libbed the speech's most famous repetition.

“I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point…the audience response was wonderful that day … And all of a sudden this thing came to me that … I’d used many times before … ‘I have a dream.’ And I just felt that I wanted to use it here … I used it, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether. I didn’t come back to it.”

Of course, by the time King turned away from his scripted speech, he had spoken about this dream many times before. History professor Clayborne Carson, who oversees Stanford's collection of King’s papers, said the phrase riffs on the song "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" ("America"), a device that other speakers (see above) used, as did King's family friend Archibald Carey. The Chicago lawyer, minister, and diplomat also referenced the lyrics while speaking in support of Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican Convention.

It is the emphasis on basic and universal appeals that makes the speech so memorable. Historians say that had King spoken of specifics — the March on Washington had been a rally for jobs and freedom, focusing on wages, among other issues — historical memory would be different.

“It's about a direction, but it doesn't have the same specific bite that some of his other speeches have, which makes it a lot more acceptable for a lot of people who don't want to do anything specific or feel like we've already done it," Orfield said.

The "dream" moves the speech's movement from fiery Old Testament prophets to the New Testament. Its repetition echoes the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus instructs his followers: Blessed are those who hunger and search after justice; blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice's sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Let freedom ring": Samuel Francis Smith's "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" ("America")

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These words have their origins in Samuel Francis Smith's "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

Freedom is “probably the most fundamental American value,” Orfield said. “Even as the opponents of civil rights were fighting for 'freedom' from government, King wanted Americans to understand that government had to act and that civil rights law and the social and cultural changes that would come with it would bring a great expansion of freedom.”

King’s geographic references, such as the mention of Stone Mountain in Georgia, were intended to take topological high ground away from resurgent antagonists, such as the KKK.

"Free at last, free at last:" Negro spirituals and the Book of Exodus

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Some of King’s thinking can be traced back to the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. King sometimes began his Sunday sermons reading from the book. Listeners recognized the symbolism in Pharaoh, hardship going through Egypt, and the arrival at the Promised Land.

“It's very congruent with King's speeches,” he said. “When you were listening to Dr. King, you would hear about how we were making the path to freedom and we're going to take down the walls of Jericho. All of this had an incredibly powerful resonance in the black churches where he was organizing people, where it was in their hearts and their souls and it became redemptive politically.”

King’s speech had a powerful inflection point at its end. After his martyrdom, King became associated with street names, public schools and more widespread honors. Lost amid the celebrations, Orfield said, was the recognition, which King held, that the work is never finished.

"The arc [of history] doesn’t bend automatically toward justice," he said. "Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land for 60 years. It took a long struggle to get to Brown v. Board of Education. Every generation has to win its own rights. Anyone who thinks it ends with a big speech 50 years ago is saying something Dr. King would've never believed for a second."

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