From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered “I Have a Dream” to over two hundred thousand people on 28 August 1963. Watching on television, millions heard all or part of King's speech, which served as the climax of the March on Washington, the largest rally of the civil rights movement.
Tepid about racial equality for over two years, President Kennedy proposed major civil rights legislation after King's Birmingham crusade in spring 1963. Many viewed the 1963 March as a rally to support that legislation—an interpretation that several speakers at the March encouraged even though labor leader A. Philip Randolph and activist Bayard Rustin had begun organizing the event in 1962.
When supporters rallied at the Lincoln Memorial, they heard singers and a series of measured and unexceptional addresses by Roy Wilkins, director of the NAACP, Whitney Young, head of the Urban League, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, and others. Although the Kennedy administration applied intense pressure to make John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sound more moderate, he delivered a scorching oration that castigated both major political parties.
Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson appeared separately to revive the wilting crowd with spirituals and set the stage for the last speech of the day.
In seventeen minutes, King called for racial equality by presenting an inventory of religious and nationalistic themes. He opened by sketching an American nightmare. One hundred years after emancipation, he announced, “the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation.” Attacking institutionalized racism, he contended that Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the American government had failed African Americans by issuing a check for freedom marked “insufficient funds.” Melding patriotic and religious authorities, King invoked the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, ancient Hebrew prophets, and Christianity to argue that racial injustice was un-American and unacceptable. He championed militant nonviolence—or “soul force”—as the route between moderation and extremism.
King dedicated the second half of “I Have a Dream” to a vision of what America could become: a land of equality and peace. In his climactic “Let Freedom Ring” litany, he projected a future in which Isaiah's vision of exalted valleys, which he cited earlier, is realized in a racially harmonious America. He concluded by reciting the lyrics of “America” (“My country‘tis of thee”) that Marian Anderson had sung at the memorial during her celebrated Easter concert in 1939. He borrowed and refined the entire “Let Freedom Ring” peroration from a speech by Archibald Carey, an African American pastor from Chicago.
Throughout “I Have a Dream” King and his listeners engaged in a call-and-response interaction common in African American Baptist churches. (He later stated that he extended “I Have a Dream” because of the warm response of his audience.) His rolling cadences and parallelisms also reflected African American pulpit traditions.
King concluded by prophesying a future in which everyone would sing the spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” The crowd roared its approval.