On August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what is perhaps the most famous speech in American history. His revered “I Have a Dream” speech clocked in at 17 minutes, and has been ranked the top American speech of the 20th century by public speaking scholars. Rightfully so, as King’s speech was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, and stands as the epitome of what public speaking should be.
It seems a disservice to dedicate only a couple hundred words to King’s monumental “I Have a Dream” speech as entire books have been written about it and its consequential impact. But for the sake of brevity, here are a few things we can learn from the celebrated speech.
The first thing that jumps out to us while listening again to “I Have a Dream” is the hallmark of every great speech: masterly use of repetition. King employs the technique from the beginning, and carries it throughout his speech. “One hundred years later…,” “now is the time…,” “we can never be satisfied…,” and of course, the now-immortal phrase: “I have a dream…” This speech in particular shows the inherent power in using repetition. Notice how riveting, how spellbinding, how soulful repetition makes his words. We hang onto each one, grasping for more, allowing the emotion to wash over us.
Also, notice King’s tone throughout “I Have a Dream.” His passion is so great it feels almost tangible. He evokes a strong, active, commanding voice, using such verbs as must, cannot, can never, etc. Many scholars call this speech a “rhetorical masterpiece” because of King’s allusions to various important texts, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Declaration, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and heavily throughout, the Bible. These allusions nuance King’s words, and beautifully place him and the 200,000 civil rights activists he’s speaking to into a historical framework. By referencing the most important rights-granting documents in American history, he’s placing his fight, this fight for Civil Rights, into a vastly important historical context.
“I Have a Dream” is also a masterpiece of storytelling. When King begins with the phrase “I have a dream…” he is painting a picture for his audience; he is visualizing what life would be like for African Americans if the Civil Rights movement were won. Rather than just muse abstractly about ideas like hope and faith, King gives his audience a concrete idea of what that hope and that faith can accomplish. This is what life could look like, he says, after we’ve fought our fight, after we’ve turned our hope and faith into something real.
We could go on and on and on about how amazing and truly remarkable Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is, but instead, we encourage you to take a moment out of your day and listen to the 17-minute masterpiece. You’re sure to get goosebumps, and feeling wholly inspired and refreshed afterward. JFK said, “The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” This is one that did.