On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, take time to read, hear, or watch the entire speech that placed Dr. King among the memorials and monuments of America’s founding fathers. Here is a guide to some of the lesser known but equally important words and phrases included in his most famous speech.
The speech made him an icon in American history. Every school child in America since the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s knows the words he spoke on that hot August day in 1963:
I have a dream 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.
These words held out a moral imperative for the nation: to end legalized segregation, to offer equal opportunity for all Americans and to eradicate racial prejudice in America and around the globe forever. America has come a long way since the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. It took his untimely and tragic death by assassination to bring many of the legislative changes into reality, and the moral compass of our nation still points to ways that we must reduce prejudice, increase economic and social justice, and make our nation a beacon of hope for all humanity. Many observers around the world saw the election of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, as another step towards the fulfillment of King’s dream.
There are many phrases and passages of King’s seminal speech that we often don’t get to hear on the holiday created to remember and celebrate his legacy. These often-forgotten passages help give context to his words, and they help students of social and political history understand the progress America has made since the days of the civil rights marches that Dr. King organized and led.
King opened his speech with these words:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation
He was speaking 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that began the march towards equality for African-Americans by setting free those slaves held in states in rebellion against the Union during the Civil War. He chose his setting well: he stood before the statue of “the Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, a symbol of freedom and equality for all.
King had critics in the African-American community who were calling for more direct, sometimes violent action to end segregation and discrimination. One of these critics was Malcolm X, who eventually reconciled with King before he himself was assassinated in 1965. Malcolm X and others felt that King was an advocate of “gradualism,” or a “go slow” approach to civil rights. King addressed his critics in both the black and white communities: