Martin Luther King, Jr: "I Have a Dream" (video/tasks)

Dr Martin Luther King’s speech held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, is one of the most famous speeches in modern history. It is often called simply the I have a dream speech, because of these memorable words repeated at the end and because it sums up the tone of a speech full of hope and vision.

The occasion was a Civil Rights march on the capital in favour of a proposed bill to end segregation. At the time King had become the leading figurehead of the movement and his oratorical (speech-making) skills, learned through his experience as a Baptist preacher, were a powerful weapon in mobilizing public opinion. So powerful, in fact, that, five years later, he was assassinated by a gunman in Memphis.




(Notes and tasks)

1) Oratorial skills – Choosing the words:

Find examples in the speech of the following:

  1. Words or phrases repeated for effect.
  2. Strong imagery.
  3. Poetic language.
  4. Using a person to stand for an abstract idea. 

2) Oratorial skills – Voice and Body:

Oratory is not just about the words you choose; it is at least as important how you deliver them. Watch King’s speech again, and this time look out for the following:

  1. What does his body language convey? Does it vary during the course of the speech?
  2. How does he vary his volume and intensity in the speech?
  3. Timing is very important in public speaking. What do you notice about the timing of the phrase “I have a dream”? Why does he do this, do you think?

3) Bible references:

King was a Baptist minister, and his speech is full of references to the Bible. The expression justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream is taken from Amos, chapter 5, verse 24, while the following is taken (though not word for word) from Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 4-5 : one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

  1. Why do you think King uses these references to the Bible?
  2. What effect do you think it had on his audience?
  3. What effect does it have on you?

4) Politically correct language:

King refers to Negroes in his speech. In the early 1960s this was still the most commonly used word for America’s black population. By the 1970s the word was increasingly seen as being undesirable, because of its associations with slavery and with more offensive words like nigger. The word blacks (or Blacks) was used instead. Later, in the 1980s and 90s this word too went out of fashion. Why should one group of the population, it was argued, be referred to by their colour, while other Americans prided themselves on their ethnic origins: e.g. Italian Americans, Norwegian Americans, Irish Americans. So the term African Americans, or sometimes Afro-Americans was used. This is the most “politically correct” term today, although blacks is still used too.

There have been debates in Norway recently about which words should be used when referring to particular minorities. For example, the words neger and sigøyner have been strongly criticized.
  1. What do you think of such debates?
  2. Who should decide whether a word is offensive or not?