The greatest piece of writing ever?

King delivers his seminal speech, 50 years ago today (Image: Library of Congress)
Image: Library of Congress
Image: Library of Congress

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the finest, most evocative and most important pieces of writing ever. On 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial and delivered a 17-minute speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – a protest actively supported by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In it, he outlined his vision of a better future for the USA’s non-white population – at that time still treated as second-class citizens – in line with the principles laid down in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.

King delivers his seminal speech, 50 years ago today (Image: Library of Congress)
King delivers his seminal speech, 50 years ago today (Image: Library of Congress)

People the world over know this speech by its most memorable section, based on four simple words: “I have a dream”:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I first read the full text of the speech (you can read it in many places online, including here) and what now seems like its almost unthinkable social context as a 15-year-old studying American history. If you have never read it, I heartily recommend it. In 17 minutes and a little over 1,600 words, King paints a compelling picture of the burning platform of racial inequality and segregation, of the failure of a nation to deliver on promises outlined in its most basic and treasured documents and of his vision of what the future must look like, with the call to action that “if America is to be a great nation, this must become true”.

Much more than just being a rallying cry for the civil rights movement, “I have a dream” is simply a fantastic piece of writing. It has one clear central message, paints a vivid picture for the audience and balances passion with erudition, striking right at the heart of Americans’ fundamental beliefs as laid out by their founding fathers.

Martin Luther King was shot in the head while standing on the balcony of his motel room on 4th April 1968. He died in hospital an hour later. But the civil rights movement, in which he had been a key influence, had by then gained unstoppable momentum. The United States is, by and large, an almost unrecognisable and far better country today as a result. The through-line from King at Lincoln Memorial to Barack Obama just up the road in the White House is obvious, but no less important for it.

Without wanting to overplay its personal importance, this speech was one of the influences that encouraged me to take up writing as a hobby and therefore in some small way one of the reasons I blog now. I’m not a naturally fluent or confident speaker – I have a nervous stammer, I struggle to organise all the random thoughts in my head into anything resembling verbal coherence and I’m shy and socially awkward – but I’ve always found it easier to express myself using the written word. In some small way, King’s words inspired a geeky teenager on the other side of the Atlantic more than 15 years after his death.

The man may be long since dead, but his legacy lives on. The pen really was mightier than the sword.