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What makes "I have a dream" the best speech of all time?

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What is "the best speech of all time"? The answer to such a question is obviously subjective, as amongst other things, it partly depends on how you define 'best'. Some of my fellow countrymen would opt for Churchill's "Fight them on the beaches", other people would pick JFK's inaugural address, but for me there's no doubt. It's Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, something I've heard it dozens of times and yet still moves me emotionally and raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time. There is a video of the full speech at the bottom of this page and a full transcript of the speech with the rhetorical techniques highlighted and explained here.

Martin Luther King

Most people don't realize it, but the 250,000 people who gathered in Washington for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" on August 18th 1963 hadn't necessarily come to listen to MLK. He was one of the event organizers, but he was16th on an official programme that included the national anthem, the invocation, a prayer, a tribute to women, two sets of songs and nine other speakers. Yet his impact was so great that few people other than civil rights historians could tell you the name of any of the other speakers. In a survey in 2008, only 4% of Americans questioned were unfamiliar with the speech.

Yet the famous words "I have a dream" almost didn't make it into the speech at all. The speakers were supposed to have limited themselves to just five minutes each, but they all overran and with the humidity and heat (it was 87F at noon), the crowd was losing its enthusiasm. Many had traveled a long way, were anxious to make good time on the journey back and had already left. MLK knew the importance of the speech and halfway through, felt that although it was a decent oration by his standards (brilliant by anybody else's, mind you) it just wasn't having the effect he'd hoped for.

I remember reading somewhere that Robert de Niro's "Are you talking to me?" scene from Taxi Driver, one of the most iconic in movie history, wasn't even scripted. It was the last scene shot on the last day of filming, and the script simply said, "Travis speaks to himself in the mirror." De Niro could have said anything, but it's on occasions when the pressure's on that true genius comes to the fore and he improvized the words that would become #10 in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movie Quotes.

A similar thing happened with MLK. The pressure was on, and he wanted, no he needed, to make this speech memorable. The whole 'I have a dream' section wasn't even planned to be in the speech that day. He'd used the phrase in other speeches on other occasions, but one of his advisors had told him the night before that it was a 'cliche' and that he'd 'used it too many times already.' Then during the speech, some people say that gospel singer Mahalia Jackson twice cried out, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!"

In his autobiography, MLK doesn't mention that but says instead:

"I started out reading the speech, and read it down to a point ...... and all of a sudden this thing came to me. The previous June...... I had delivered a speech ...... in which I used the phrase “I have a dream.” I had used it many times before, and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about it before the speech. I used the phrase, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether and didn’t come back to it."

Whatever the reason, "I have a dream" is arguably the most famous ad-lib in American political history. If you watch the video you can see how MLK's body language changes once he's ditched his written manuscript. Up to then he's leaning on the podium and looking adown at his notes occasionally. But as soon as he begins to ad-lib, his eyes never leave the audience, he stands straighter and changes from a lecturer to a Baptist preacher.

5 things that make it such a great speech:

1. It has a clear objective

The speech was aimed not at the audience in front of him, but primarily at Congress and 'uncommitted' whites. To aim it at his supporters would have been preaching to the converted, and White Supremacists would never be won round by a speech, no matter how eloquent, so it wasn't aimed at them.

On June 11, President Kennedy had embraced civil rights as a moral cause in a televised address and then submitted a landmark bill the following week. There was a chance that Congress might, just might produce the greatest civil rights law since the 13th and 15th amendments (abolishing slavery and servitude, respectively) and the 14th amendment (guaranteeing “equal protection” under the law). One of the obstacles was the perception amongst many whites that the movement was revolutionary and violent, and the idea of '100,000 militant negroes' roaming the streets of the capital struck fear into more than a few hearts.

His objective, therefore was threefold: 1) to explain the plight of the Afro-American population to whites who were often ignorant of the true state of affairs, demonstratng the immorality of the situation and the need for change, 2) toreassure them that the movement was moderate and non-violent and not something they needed to fear, and 3) to paint a picture of what could be in the future if legislation was passed.

Read the transcript of the speech and you can see quite clearly how this dictates its structure.

2. It had a persuasive structure

MLK used a structure called problem/solution, which is the best way to persuade an audience of something ( see 7 ways to structure your presentations for the others). Most speakers or presenters make a rookie mistake, which is to assume that the problem they want to solve is obvious and doesn't really need explaining. So they launch straight into the solution, which then bounces off a wall of indifference because the audience is thinking, "Problem? What problem?" Effective presenters and speakers therefore spend as much time describing and emphasising the problem as they do outlining their solution. This needs real discipline, as the tendency is to regard this as 'wasted' time which could be better spent on more detail about the solution. It isn't. The more time spent emphasizing the problem, the easier it is to gain acceptance for the solution.

But MLK was no rookie. He spends the first half of the speech outlining the problem that exists, i.e. the discrimination that the African-American population faced, and why this was manifestly unjust. If you doubt that my comment in the previous paragraph that the speech was aimed primarily at Congress and uncommitted whites, ask yourself why he needed to explain the problem at such length to a black audience who lived through the segregation and discrimination he was describing every single day of their lives.

He vividly describes the 'shameful condition' in which most African-Americans lived. He uses negative emotional words, like "captivity," "poverty," "exile," "persecution," "despair," " lonely island of poverty" and "dark and desolate" and talks of the "manacles of segregation" and the "chains of discrimination" in an obvious reference to slavery.

This is aimed at making his white audience realize how terrible the plight of the the black population is and his descriptions of their situation makes them uncomfortable as it's shown that they are the ones responsible for this, not the blacks themselves. MLK states that America has literally broken its promise to African-Americans by refusing them the rights granted in the Constitution and promised by what he terms a "sacred obligation."

He states that when America was founded, “the Constitution and Declaration of Independence” stated that all men, black or white, were to be granted the same rights, but America had not kept its promise to its black people - they'd been given “a bad check,” one which had come back marked “insufficient funds” despite the “promissory note” of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Ethically, most people believe that it is necessary to keep a promise, and this puts racism in a whole new light. Racism is positioned as being 'unAmerican'; to be racist is to be against the US Constitution.

Once this problem has been established, he changes his vocabulary. The second half of the speech is packed with positive emotional words, such as "freedom," "justice," 'faith" and "hope" as he begins to outline what could be if blacks and whites learned to work together and not fear each other. He speaks of a "table of brotherhood," "an oasis of freedom and justice" and "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" and the hope that black and white children will be able to hold hands, and be judged "not on the colour of their skin but on the content of their character."

3. It has a great beginning

As great a speaker as I think President Obama is, readers of my articles anayzing his speeches know that I think his openings are weak and far too much time is spent thanking and complimenting virtually everyone present in the room. Contrast this with MLK's opening. After one brief introductory remark, he goes straight to the point, pulling no punches. His words "five score years ago" are a deliberate of echo Lincoln's own introduction to the Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago ....."

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later , the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later , the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

It reminds me of the famous blunt opening of the nineteenth century black politician Frederick Douglass' speech to the citizens of Rochester on 4th July 1952:

"Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? .......

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me ..."

4. It is a rhetorical masterpiece.

The speech is a rhetorical work of art. There is so much to be said here I've dealt with it in a separate article. The full transcript with each of the rhetorical techniques identified and highlighted can be seen here.

5. It has a great ending

After the "I have a dream" section, he closes using CLIMAX (see Leave 'em on a high: 5 ways to close a speech or presentation for other ways to close) which is a deliberate change in pace and volume, often accompanied by a piece of rhetoric, profound statement or a clever line to finsif 'with a bang'. His words have to be heard rather than read to get the full effect.

"And so let freedom ring -- from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring -- from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring -- from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring -- from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring -- from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that. Let freedom ring -- from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring -- from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring -- from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city , we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics , will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

"Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!""

 

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