GoLocalProv | Politics | Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech: Making an Impact 60 Years Later

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. PHOTO: Library of Congress

“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” proclaimed Martin Luther King 60 years ago yesterday to 250,000 attendees at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as well as to the millions more watching on television. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Called “a new founding father,” by his biographer Taylor Branch, because his words and deeds challenged our nation to live up to the aspirational promise of its founding ideals, Martin Luther King framed the African American quest for equality of opportunity as a fulfillment of the ringing words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


As King put it that day with the Lincoln Monument in the background, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “

Originally privately opposed to the march because he thought any violence that occurred would jeopardize the passage of his proposed civil rights legislation–legislation that became the Civil Right Act of 1964–John F. Kennedy, a pretty good speechmaker in his own right, was impressed and thrilled by the “I Have a Dream Speech,”  congratulating Martin Luther King on it at a meeting in the White House held at the conclusion of the march.  In a public statement released soon thereafter, President Kennedy said, “The cause of 20 million Negroes has been advanced by the program conducted so appropriately before the Nation’s shrine to the Great Emancipator, but even more significant is the contribution to all mankind.”

A new poll conducted by Pew Research Center to mark the 60th anniversary of the speech shows the lasting impact of the speech itself and Martin Luther King on the American public. Sixty percent of American adults say “they have heard or read a great deal or a fair amount” about the “I Have a Dream” speech, and an additional 27% say “they have read some.”  Given that most Americans have earned their international reputation for not knowing a lot about their own history, these are impressive numbers.

More broadly, about 8 in 10 Americans say “King has had a positive impact on the country, with 47% saying he has had a very positive impact,” according to Pew. Adults under 50 are even more positive about King’s impact with nearly all the differential resulting from the fact that whites under 50 have a more positive view of King than older whites.  Nearly 4-in-10 Americans overall and nearly 6-in-10 African Americans say their own views on racial equality have been influenced by his legacy “a great deal or a fair amount.”

Additionally, more than half of Americans (52%) believe “there has been a great deal or fair amount of progress on racial equality over the past 60 years.”  At the same time, more than half say that efforts to ensure equality for all haven’t gone far enough, while 27% say they have been about right and 20% say they have gone too far.  Tellingly, nearly 4-in-10 Republicans say these efforts have gone too far.

At a time when the FBI reports a rise in racially motivated violent extremism and in which racially tinged attacks are a central part of the former president and current Republican frontrunner’s brand, it is essential that we draw on the words, legacy, and example of Martin Luther King, who like Lincoln, called us to act on the “better angels of our nature.”

Remaining vigilant against hate and bigotry is the work of every generation.  And while there has been much progress over the past 60 years, the work of ensuring full equality of opportunity to every American remains unfinished.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits, businesses, and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

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