Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the central figures of the twentieth century. Born into an educated black family in Atlanta in 1929, his childhood was strongly influenced by religion and the racial inequality of the South. He got a doctorate from Boston University on the topic of man’s relationship with God in 1955 before which he graduated from seminary in 1951 (Peake). “I Have a Dream” is one of the defining speeches of the twentieth century and is at the heart of Civil Rights literature. While other writings from the era brought up the same issues that afflicted the black community, this speech came to be a rallying cry for the movement. “I Have a Dream” is more than a speech, it is a piece of American history in its own right and as such is a necessary part in any study of American literature.
King covered many themes in the speech, but the central theme is that a nation divided by inequality and oppression fails all of its citizens. The common tenet of all his speeches, nonviolent resistance, in present as well but not the central point. The first half of the speech pushes this central theme into the minds of the listener and reader, while the second half, the “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” portion, presents an idea of what a nation free from segregation and discrimination would look like.
The speech begins with metaphors that speak to that point. The founding fathers in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence wrote a letter of credit to all Americans in which they “guaranteed the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."”(King 2710). The nation’s failure to pay up on that promise is the central theme of the second through fourth passages. This is expressed with lines like “… America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."”(King 2710). The metaphor of the rights and guaranteed by the founders as a form of a check or currency is continued with justice the bank and opportunity the vault from which the check was to be cashed from.
He imparts a message to whites in passages six through nine that blacks will not back down from their drive for equal rights and to not expect tranquility or a return to business as usual. To blacks, he imparts the message that the marvelous militancy which has engulfed their communities cannot be directed at all whites nor can it fall from the “high plane of dignity and discipline.”(King 2711) They must refrain from meeting physical force with violence and instead meet it with soul force. Both of these messages mean to present the central theme in another way.
The theme of freedom and equality deferred for the blacks specifically the areas of voting and housing are expressed in his answer to when blacks will be satisfied. He answers that they will not be satisfied as long as “a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” and “the Negro’s basic...