“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 would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” ––Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream
In its essence, “I Have a Dream” is one citizen’s soul-searing plea with his countrymen––Whites and Blacks––to recognize that racial disparities fueled by unwarranted bigotry were crippling America’s ability to shine as a true beacon of democracy in a world filled with people groping their way through suffocating shadows of political turmoil, economic oppression, military mayhem, starvation, and disease. The speech is particularly remarkable for the way it balances a militant rejection of racial and political oppression with unwavering faith in humanity’s ability to exercise love and moral vision in the face of hatred and xenophobia.
In Dr. King’s words: “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” The power to strike such an uncanny balance came as much from the tradition of dissension and prophecy historically employed within the African-American church as from the contents of King’s own formidable character.
The word “prophecy” itself does not appear in the speech. However, halfway through it, King evokes the words of the Old Testament prophet Amos. Exactly what was on his mind is made clear in the pages of his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom, which is included in A Testament of Hope (p. 481, pb edition):
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