The BEST: “I Have a Dream”

Zev Eleff Tradition Online | July 29, 2021

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech.

Summary: On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before a quarter-million supporters in Washington, DC. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, determined to strike the right chord on behalf of civil and economic rights. His sermon called for fairness and the collapse of racial barriers. King argued forcefully and sensibly for racial equality, not unlike his and others’ statements throughout the Civil Rights Era. 

King’s “Dream” sermon stands out for its rhetorical genius. The Civil Rights Era’s most important champion connected his remarks to foundational American texts. First, he invoked Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and linked his social justice efforts with the Emancipation Proclamation. After that, King reached farther back in American history to Thomas Jefferson and the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. In the climax, King borrowed from Samuel Francis Smith’s “America,” calling for “freedom to ring” while pointing upward to the mountains of the bigoted South. 

King’s speech represented African Americans’ tortured struggle to find themselves within the so-called American Dream. He had invoked “dreams” in earlier sermons, an image probably conjured up by King’s admiration for and friendship with Langston Hughes. Hughes was the Harlem Renaissance’s most prominent poet, who asked in 1951 “What happens to a dream deferred?” 

King pleaded for America to no longer defer his dream, even as he recognized that desegregation and civil rights would not be solved in his lifetime. “I have a dream,” he preached, “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.” By connecting racial justice to the tenets of America’s foundational texts, King widened the dream question to all citizens: “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” 

Martin Luther King addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.

Why this is The BEST: King’s “I Have a Dream” routinely rates among the very best speeches in American history. In December 1999, a pair of communications professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University polled a panel of 137 experts on the best American speeches delivered in the twentieth century. King’s “I Have a Dream” topped the list. Time and again, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about King’s dream. Like others, R. Sacks was taken by the democratic idea of a dream: that it was conjured up by one person’s consciousness but could be shared and interpreted by many others. The concept resonates with Jewish tradition. It fits into the biblical story of Pharoah and Joseph. It relates to the sympathies of Zionism and the hopes of Theodor Herzl. 

All this explains how Martin Luther King elevated his commitment to reworking the American dream into a shared, quasi-religious cause. “With this faith,” offered King, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” King beseeched his listeners to “pray together” and “struggle together.” The Jewish experience in the United States has been far more positive than that of African Americans. Yet, especially amid recent anti-Semitism, Jews ought to consider their own stakeholdership in the American Dream. We too might dream within culturally canonical texts and engage in discourse over equity and fairness. 

This question resided at the core of King’s message, “What do the texts and values of the American story ask of you?” For tradition-bound Jews, King’s speech and its reception provide another element to consider. The “I Have a Dream” sermon looms large in American culture, for its rhetorical brilliance as well as its central place in the canon of Civil Rights literature. Since the Colonial Period, Jews—not at all unlike other ethnic and religious groups, on their own terms—have fused American and Jewish traditions to gain a stronger foothold in the New World. My teacher, Jonathan Sarna, described this as the “Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture.” 

Today, some Orthodox commentators take great pains to argue for the Jewish spark within Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. This impulse reduces the force and meaning of both Jewish and American sources. Instead, we ought to take important texts and materials at fuller depth, appreciating them on their own terms. Like King’s “I Have a Dream,” our traditions—certainly the Jewish ones, but the best of the American canon, too—ought to stand on their own without the support of cultural and political alchemy.

Zev Eleff is the incoming president of Gratz College and professor of American Jewish history.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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