On its face, it seems somehow glib to try to draw practical lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.
This speech transcended speechwriting and speech-giving technique. This speech was magic, spiritual, history-making. This speech, and this day, are not about speechwriting.
But King’s legacy is, I’d argue, about communication—the power of a person, with words and ideas, to change history. Without examples like King’s speech, what reason would anyone have for sitting down to write?
So if King’s speech represents the hope that communication—real exchanging of ideas, sharing of reality among disparate human beings—can actually happen, then it’s appropriate to try to understand why this speech was so momentous, and to try to figure out how to make more communications that actually communicate.
I believe King’s speech was the single most powerful speech in American history because, partly through historical fate and partly through design, every single relevant element of communication lined up at once. To wit:
The perfect occasion. As any speaker would, King opened his speech by saying he was happy to be here. Then he added that the event would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Though our speakers can’t begin to make such a claim, they all need to frame and to claim the larger social, if not historical, importance of the gathering they’re addressing.
The perfect moment. King hardly failed to note that his speech took place roughly 100 years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. But he didn’t dilute his message with any pedantic reference to “roughly”:
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
As King repeats his reference to this 100-year milestone, he sets the tone for his later suggestion that this isn’t merely a time to look back, but the precise moment to plunge forward with a new hope.
The perfect setting. As backdrops go, the Lincoln Memorial sure beats a PowerPoint screen. As backdrops for this speech, nothing could have been better chosen for its symbolism and majesty. To the extent that you can choose the settings where your speaker speaks, you should.
The perfect person. A. Philip Randolph introduced King as “the moral leader of our nation.” Some in the nation might have argued with that, but not many in the crowd gathered there. It’s hard to imagine today, anyone being called the moral leader of our nation. But in 1963, King was as close as there was. In any case, he was the right person to be delivering this message at this moment, and it behooves all speechwriters to put their speakers on podiums where they belong (and keep them off of podiums where they don’t).
The perfect message. Americans still disagree on many, many issues, many of them having to do with race. But excepting extreme fringe elements, America is no longer divided on the principles that King laid out in this speech: Namely, that equality is ideal, and that all people should be judged “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It’s not a subtle part of the communication equation: It helps to be right.
The perfect language. You can throw a dart at the text of this speech and any paragraph you hit will impress you with writing that uses every available rhetorical tool:
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
In the paragraph above, you know it is no accident that King chose “marvelous” to match “militancy.”
“Engulfed” is a powerful verb.
“Their destiny … our destiny. Their freedom … our freedom.” Great parallel structure.
And finally, note the progression of the sentence length—the first long and complex sentence expresses an opinion; the second, shorter sentence supports it; the last sentence makes an inarguable point, as abrupt as a simple fact.
Almost every other paragraph in the speech has such lessons to offer (which is why most speechwriters I know read this and other great speeches for inspiration and instruction).
The perfect delivery. Most song lyrics look dead and dull on a page. In this speech, the best prose is in the first two-thirds. But the music starts when King departs from his text—or appears to. He stops talking and he begins to sing:
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 the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of 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 color of their skin but by the content of their character.
If those words moved you just to read them, it’s because your imagination is putting them in King’s voice, etched in your memory. But let someone read them in a tone-deaf verbal ramble, as we all did in grade school, and you realize how much King’s rhythm and melody are what made these lines immortal. Delivery isn’t all—but it’s a lot.
So King got all these elements just right, choosing the perfect occasion and the perfect moment to give the perfect message in perfect language and with perfect pitch. To the extent the rest of us have our own dreams, to create a communication masterpiece, we should know: This is the direction we need to go.
Somewhere I once read a short essay* about this speech by the great American writer Ian Frasier, who said it does him good to watch the old reel at least once a year. Improbably, Frasier compared communication to a golf course driving range, where you hit ball after ball out into a field that is full of them. Usually the ball bounces and rolls and comes to a halt by itself.
But every once in awhile—and here Frasier asked us to look at the tape of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s audience on that hot day in 1963 and watch it literally vibrate and ripple—your ball hits another ball, which bounces into another ball, which hits two balls sitting together, creating a chain reaction that looks like it will eventually move all the balls in the field.
That’s what King’s speech did to his audience—and to America and the world.
That’s magic. That’s beautiful. That’s communication. And it’s what we strive to do.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.