The “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. before a crowd of some 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, remains one of the most famous speeches in history. Weaving in references to the country’s Founding Fathers and the Bible, King used universal themes to depict the struggles of African Americans, before closing with an improvised riff on his dreams of equality. The eloquent speech was immediately recognized as a highlight of the successful protest, and has endured as one of the signature moments of the civil rights movement.
‘I Have a Dream’ Speech Text'
The March on Washington produced a bigger turnout than expected, as an estimated 250,000 people arrived to participate in what was then the largest gathering for an event in the history of the nation’s capital.
Along with notable speeches by Randolph and Lewis, the audience was treated to performances by folk luminaries Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and gospel favorite Mahalia Jackson.
Toward the end, with television cameras beaming his image to a national audience, King began his speech slowly but soon showed his gift for weaving recognizable references to the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and other universal themes into his oratory.
Pointing out how the country’s founders had signed a “promissory note” that offered great freedom and opportunity, he noted that “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
At times warning of the potential for revolt, King nevertheless maintained a positive, uplifting tone, imploring the audience to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
‘Free At Last’
Around the halfway point of the speech, Mahalia Jackson implored him to “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin.” Whether or not King consciously heard, he soon moved away from his prepared text.
Repeating the mantra, “I have a dream,” he offered up hope 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” and the desire to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
“And when this happens,” he bellowed in his closing remarks, “and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village 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! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”