Home / Government / Rhetorical Fluke or Providential: “I Have a Dream!”
Print Friendly and PDF

Rhetorical Fluke or Providential: “I Have a Dream!”

Written by Gary North on August 28, 2013

Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, known as “I Have a Dream.” It deserves careful consideration, because it is widely regarded as the most important speech by a private citizen in American history.

The general public does not understand why that speech worked. The general public knows almost nothing about the content of the speech. The average person has never gone to YouTube and listened to it even once, let alone several times. I have listened to it very carefully. I regard it as a rhetorical masterpiece.

Let me rephrase that. I regard the final third of the speech as a rhetorical masterpiece. There is a reason for this. It was ad libbed. It is the most famous ad libbed speech in American history.


There are several accounts of how the speech was written. I am using the account written by Clarence B Jones, King’s associate, who was a lawyer. He is the author of a 2011 book on the speech: Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation.  Jones and King had worked together on speech-crafting before. One of the themes which King had used before had been recommended by Jones. This was the idea of a promissory note. It was a promissory note supposedly issued by Abraham Lincoln by the Emancipation Proclamation. The theme of the speech was this: the United States government in 1963 had not delivered on that 1863 note. In other words, with respect to Lincoln’s promissory note, it was a bad check. It had bounced repeatedly.

This was historically silly. Lincoln had issued no such note. But King appealed back to Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.” He invoked that as a promissory note. The fact that the Declaration of Independence never had any legal standing was beside the point. King was writing a speech, not an historical treatise. The Declaration was highly rhetorical. So was King’s speech.

He did not use the language of a bounced check, even though more of his listeners that day would have understood the reference. He spoke of a promissory note. This was the language of a lawyer. That is because it was written by a lawyer. Jones prides himself in being part of that process, although he does not claim that he was exclusively responsible for the final version. But there is no doubt that he was the source of that metaphor.

This metaphor was judicially clever. But it was not moving. People do not dedicate their lives to a cause on the basis of running a promissory note through the bank again, hoping that the account will have sufficient funds this time.

The first two-thirds of the speech was essentially a lawyer’s brief. It was delivered by a minister, a man who had made his reputation by being an eloquent minister speaking on civil and political issues. Why did he think that a lawyer’s brief would work in front of the largest gathering that had ever assembled in Washington D.C., and one of the most emotionally moving demonstrations in history? There were 250,000 people there. The largest assembly before that was about 47,000, the Bonus Army of 1932, in the Great Depression. It was a fifth the size. Also, the army under Douglas McArthur had run the Bonus Army out of town, and burned down their tents.

Oddly enough, there was a perfectly good biblical justification for this lawyer’s brief. In terms of the message of the Old Testament prophets, a lawyer’s brief was appropriate. The lawyers of the Old Testament were the prophets, and they had delivered a series of covenant lawsuits against the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah. Their targets were primarily the leaders, but they also included the whole society. These were legal briefs. So, there was a legitimate tradition behind the use of such language. But it is not common language in ecclesiastical circles. Nevertheless, we do not remember this speech as the promissory note speech. Yet that was the metaphorical heart of the original speech.

Everyone knew King was the headliner. That was why they had him speak last. This was to be the culmination of the march. This was to be the high point of the march. This was to leave a legacy. It did leave a legacy, but it was not the legacy of Jones and King who, the night before, had put the speech into its final form.


Jones describes what happened next. This should be in every textbook account of the speech. Yet it is not well known, although it has received some attention this year.

Because on the Lincoln Memorial steps, Martin, who had made his way into roughly the seventh paragraph of the speech I’d handed in, paused after saying, “We cannot turn back.” This alone was nothing unusual. The hesitations and breaks were all part of his oratory process, the rhythms he had mastered at the pulpit. Yet in this split second of silence, something historic and unexpected happened. Into that breach, Mahalia Jackson shouted to him from the speakers and organizers stand. She called out, “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the `Dream!'” Not many people heard her.But I did.

And so did Martin. (pp. 111-12)

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

Continue Reading on www.garynorth.com

Print Friendly and PDF

Posting Policy:
We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse. Read more.

11 thoughts on “Rhetorical Fluke or Providential: “I Have a Dream!”

  1. Jesse Tomblin says:

    Obama is not the DREAM Martin Luther King was speaking of. Obama is a NIGHTMARE. King was talking about al people coming together and doing good things and that is NOT Obama. Obama who HATES his WHITE side and all WHITES is nothing like the DREAM king envisioned. If King were alive today he would be marching against Obama and his America destroying policies. Obama is a prime example of all that is WRONG in Race relations today. He spews HATE like he SPEWS LIES without the slightest hesitation. King wanted America to come together but Obama is trying everything in his Power to TEAR America apart and sadly that is happening. The Ignorant and the LAZY are being bought left and right and that is KILLING America. With other STUPID things Obama has been giving to people who should not have like Gay rights. Obama has only one claim to fame and that is HE put the FINAL NAIL in America's Coffin. By his allowing Gays to marry he has DESTROYED America and NOT one thing anyone can do will reverse that. America is DOOMED and Obama is loving it.

  2. King was also the leader who might possibly have bridged the chasm and effected a harmonious future between the races. But he was taken out very early, and we now know (almost as certainly as we know Oswald was the JFK patsy) that James Earl Ray was not King’s killer…at least, King’s family no longer believe Ray was the assassin.

    Instead, King’s place was taken by opportunists and hustlers who ensured that the races would stay divided. It’s also rumored Jesse Jackson smeared chicken blood on his shirt before appearing in front of the press to tell how he cradled MLK’s head in his arms before an ambulance arrived, thereby assuring his ascension to the front of the civil rights movement.

  3. Obama's not white. No Anglo-Caucasian. Nothing. Nada. A totally fictional character. Made up from whole cloth. The deception runs wide and deep.

  4. oh but he IS. obama is as white as George Zimmerman is.

  5. awkingsley says:

    The "I Have a Dream" speech was plagiarized from another pastor. King even plagiarized his doctoral thesis. This was the same game as the Trayvon Martin game when only 3% of Black-White murders are White on Black. http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Wolves/mlk_jr-expo

  6. Martin Luther King is a symbol for the blacks and we all need our symbols. I do not take that away, but when it comes to him attempting to achieve integration in peaceful ways I saw otherwise with my own eyes. I worked in General Electric in the ghettos of Newark, N.J. when the riots broke out in 1967. I personally watched M.L.K. drive up in a chauffered driven lincoln with at least 5,000 blacks gathered in the park opposite, he got out of his car arroused the 5,000 until they were ready to riot, proceeded to have his driver delibretly bump the police car in front of him several times (the cops were afraid, with reason, to get out of their car) and then drive on and the riots began. This was not peaceful in any way and not many people know this side of him. Again, I saw it at age 24 and still remember it clearly at age 70. There were many that witnessed that, that day.

  7. Thanks, Gary, for putting the MLK video up in it's entirety: I understand it is copyrighted. The March on Washington was peaceful and inclusive. Obama's speech and yesterday's celebration was only half that…there were no Republicans or conservatives invited or appeared.
    The most egregious part of yesterday's celebration was it occurred on the steps of a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President who freed the slaves. The Democrats fought the Emancipation Proclamation and lost; they fought Civil war and lost; they fought the 13th Amendment and lost; they fought the 15th Amendment and lost; they fought for the16th, 17th, 18th Amendments and won! There is a pattern here and it continues today.

    Democrats take things away from people and build power through fear and demagoguery. With Barack Hussein Obama as their leader, they are about to take away another 20% of our economy, our 1st Amendment with NSA, IRS and DOJ intrusions of We the People. We must stop ObamaCare…find a defund ObamaCare website and vote. That's a start.
    Thanks Mr. North

  8. MLK Jr., ca. 1963: "I have a dream!"

    Barack Obama, ca. 2013: "I have a drone!"

  9. Obama has a white mother so shouldn't that make him half white? And there are nude pictures of her floating around in cyberspace to prove it, if you want to search for them. And that's probably why he hates whites…

  10. Good research, Gary. I was amazed, and gratified, to learn that an influential governor of Alabama in the sixties would admit to not being a Christian. Amazed because I would've thought that would be one of the qualifications of office there in the Bible belt. Gratified because that's one the opponents of Christianity can't use, and a demonstration that true Christianity would repudiate the actions of a Gov. Wallace.

  11. It really doesn't matter if he's white, black or half-white – it's his vendetta against whites that has me worried. He can't let go of the past and he takes it out on whites. He took the side of the disorderly professor against white policemen when it was quiet clear that the professor was in the wrong. It was not the white policemen who "acted stupidly" as Obama
    put it – it was the professor