How did Martin L. Kings "I have a dream"-speech contribute to the peaceful athmosphere at the March on Washington in 1963?

Term Paper 2004 17 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of content


Looking at the Background of the Speech

Using Biblical Imagery

Quoting the Bible

Adressing the Guilty

Involving the White Listeners

Using Cultural Images from the White American Past

Reminding of the Nonviolent Resistance


“I have a dream” by Martin Luther King



“Fears of a possible riot were intense […]. D.C. police units had all their leaves cancelled; neighboring suburban forces were given special riot-control training. […] Liquor sales were banned for a day—for the first time since Prohibition. The Justice Department and the army coordinated preparations for emergency troop deployments; […].A crew of lawyers was convened to prepare in advance proclamations authorizing military deployments. Fifteen thousand paratroopers were put on alert.”[1]

The high precautions and fears of riots were understandable as just some weeks before, the national guards had to be mobilized when the white governor of Alabama George Wallace had prevented Blacks from entering the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama.[2]

Despite all fears the largest demonstration in the history of the U. S. A. ended peacefully1.

But how was the nonviolent atmosphere achieved, taking into account that the most controversial matter in the American society of that time - the equality of black and white U.S. American citizens was to be discussed?

In my essay I will examine the last speech of the rally: Martin L. King Jr.’s “I have a dream”.

I will show that there were thousands of white Americans attending the March on Washington. No one could exactly say what some of them or black activists were up to on this day. I will argue that the speech created community within the black and white listeners by King using various stylistic devices and reminding the listeners of his non-violent strategy.

Thus, the central question of this essay will be: Which parts of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech contributed to the peaceful atmosphere between black and white Americans at the March on Washington in 1963?

This analysis will not be done chronically following the speech. To ensure that the reader still is able to follow, “I have a dream” is appended to the paper with a number before each paragraph. These numbers will be referred to in the essay.

Looking at the Background of the Speech

The March on Washington still is the largest political demonstration the United States has ever seen.[3] On this day in late August of 1963 about 250.000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.. About 60 000 of them

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten[4]

were white.[5] Due to the explosive subject of the gathering, it was necessary to calm down the people to prevent a violent turnout of the protest. Only so could the rally make a positive statement for equality and the Civil Rights Act that was being discussed in the Congress at this time. This Act, passed in 1964, was to illegalise every way of discrimination of Black people in the public and working sector of the American life. Furthermore, schools that were not yet desegregated would be removed from the federal funding lists and the right of the federal government to end the segregation in the south was enforced.[6]

Since King was the last person to speak at the rally, he had to be extremely cautious with his message: as portrayed, riots were expected after the March, so King had to try to prevent this to make the rally a success. But also he had to make a strong statement against segregation as he had the chance to speak to the whole nation (even world) with his words through the major media attention the rally had gained.

As his major rhetoric strategy for the speech King chose religious imagery as the base. King’s motivation for this was that the belief in God had always kept together the American society, and was to be used for the same motives here, too.

A second reason was the fact that King had been working as a minister and thus had a big knowledge about the bible. The cleric had graduated from Boston University in Theology in 1948 and then started to preach in churches. When he became the minister of the black church in Montgomery in 1954, he became the leader of the local civil rights movement just a few months later in 1955.[7]

Using Biblical Imagery

Since King knew all about the bible, it was logic that he used a lot of religious imagery during his speeches.

As example, King addressed the listeners as “God’s children” three times during his speech.[8]

This phrase was taken from the Book of Wisdom of Solomon (12:7). In this passage humankind is being referred to as “God’s children”.[9] This in turn, derives from the biblical story of the creation of the world and mankind. According to the first passages of the Old Testament, God created Adam and Eve who were the commencement of every family tree in the world.[10] Accordingly, all humans are God’s children – Black and White.


[1] The Civil Rights Movement – the March on Washington, 1963: „We stood on a height“. download: http://www.abbeville.com/civilrights/washington.asp [07/14/2004]

[2] Alabame history download: http://www.worldhistory.com/alabama_timeline.htm [07/30/04]

[3] Presler, Gerd: Martin Luther King. p. 91f., Hamburg: Rowoldt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1984.

[4] Image found under: http://ari.typepad.com/photos/scrapbook/amex_king_dream.jpg

[5] Ibid.

[6] No author. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in 20 Bänden – Der große Brockhaus. 17th Ed, Vol. 4, Entry: Civil Rights Act, p. 71, Mannheim: Brockhaus GmbH, 1968.

[7] Presler, Gerd: Martin Luther King.

[8] see appendix, paragraph 6, 22, 24.

[9] Barker, Kenneth (General Ed): New American Standard Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999., Book of Wisdom of Solomon 12:7 - That the land, which thou esteemedst above all other, might receive a worthy colony of God's children.

[10] Ibid, Book of Genesis 1:26 – 28.


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Martin Kings March Washington Nonviolence

Title: How did Martin L. Kings "I have a dream"-speech contribute to the peaceful athmosphere at the March on Washington in 1963?