My Minute of News: The qualities that made MLK’s famous speech so famous

Jan 17, 2022, 4:24 PM | Updated: 4:52 pm
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr....
Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
(Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

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This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood behind a microphone at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, he and more than 250,000 other people had peacefully marched from the Washington Monument.

It was just under a mile and represented the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The goal of the march organizers was to demand civil rights for Black Americans.

There were a dozen other speakers before Dr. King, and one after him. But it was his “I Have a Dream” speech that became intimately linked with the march. It’s his speech that kids are taught about in school today. 

What made it so special? As far as I can tell, it boils down to three things: time, place, and words.

The time

It was 1963, and the height of the fight for civil rights, a battle that had been waged in America for years ahead of that tumultuous decade. It can be argued that the Black fight for civil rights began in the late 1940s when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to end racial segregation in the U.S. military.

Between that moment and King’s speech in 1963 was Brown vs. Board of Education and the end of segregation in public schools. Then the murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of a bus, a bus boycott, non-violent protests, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 ensuring voting rights, sit-ins, Ruby Bridges, and freedom riders.

Meaning Dr. King was riding a wave (and arguably, at the same time, in the mix creating the wave) that had decades of momentum with clear demands: civic and economic rights for Black Americans.

The place

Nearly 250,000 Black Americans had peacefully and solemnly moved a little less than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Then, Dr. King took them on another trip, one through American history.

The words

With his words, he reminded everyone there and everyone who would watch and listen later, of some of the most powerful words uttered by other American giants.

Like the Gettysburg Address, the greatest speech in American history. King’s speech began with rhetorical flourish, using the same words as those used by the man sitting behind King in gigantic statue form. “Five score and seven years ago … ” (except Lincoln said, “four score.”)

He cited the powerful Declaration of Independence decree that all men are created equal.

And as he described the past, he pointed to the future, repeating the title of his speech as a chorus. As an exclamation point.

“I have a dream!”

Proof of the strength of this speech … each January… for 57 years… it’s heard in classrooms… on TV…and leaves each listener to weigh …whether Martin Luther King’s dream has … or ever will … come true.

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My Minute of News: The qualities that made MLK’s famous speech so famous