In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we would like to revisit one of the maverick’s lesser known speeches. “The American Dream,” included below in full, was delivered on July 4, 1965 in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, just two years after his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he reflects on persisting inequality across the country and remarks that the dream he once spoke of had “often turned into a nightmare.”
I planned to use for the textual basis for our thinking together that passage from the prologue of the book of Job where Satan is pictured as asking God, “Does Job serve thee for nought?” And I’d like to ask you to allow me to hold that sermon [“Why Serve God?”] in abeyance and preach it the next time I am in the pulpit in order to share with you some other ideas. This morning I was riding to the airport in Washington, D.C., and on the way to the airport the limousine passed by the Jefferson monument, and Reverend Andrew Young, my executive assistant, said to me, “It’s quite coincidental that we would be passing by the Jefferson Monument on Independence Day.” You can get so busy in life that you forget holidays and other days, and it had slipped my mind altogether that today was the Fourth of July. And I said to him, “It is coincidental and quite significant, and I think when I get to Atlanta and go to my pulpit, I will try to preach a sermon in the spirit of the founding fathers of our nation and in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.” And so this morning I would like to use as a subject from which to preach: “The American Dream.” (Yes, sir)
It wouldn’t take us long to discover the substance of that dream. It is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream.
The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say “some men,” it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men,” it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles,” it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants,” it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. (Yes, sir) It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers,” it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.
Then that dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state. In order to discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.
Now ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence—to use a big word that the psychiatrists use—America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.
But now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy. And the price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction. (Yes it is) For the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late.
And so it is marvelous and great that we do have a dream, that we have a nation with a dream; and to forever challenge us; to forever give us a sense of urgency; to forever stand in the midst of the “isness” of our terrible injustices; to remind us of the “oughtness” of our noble capacity for justice and love and brotherhood.
This morning I would like to deal with some of the challenges that we face today in our nation as a result of the American dream. First, I want to reiterate the fact that we are challenged more than ever before to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality. We are challenged to really believe that all men are created equal. And don’t misunderstand that. It does not mean that all men are created equal in terms of native endowment, in terms of intellectual capacity—it doesn’t mean that. There are certain bright stars in the human firmament in every field. (Yes, sir) It doesn’t mean that every musician is equal to a Beethoven or Handel, a Verdi or a Mozart. It doesn’t mean that every physicist is equal to an Einstein. It does not mean that every literary figure in history is equal to Aeschylus and Euripides, Shakespeare and Chaucer. (Make it plain) It does not mean that every philosopher is equal to Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Hegel. It doesn’t mean that. There are individuals who do excel and rise to the heights of genius in their areas and in their fields. What it does mean is that all men are equal in intrinsic worth. (Yes)
You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the “image of God,” is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. (Yes) We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.
This is why we must fight segregation with all of our nonviolent might. (Yes, sir; Make it plain) Segregation is not only inconvenient—that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only sociologically untenable—that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only politically and economically unsound—that is not what makes it wrong. Ultimately, segregation is morally wrong and sinful. To use the words of a great Jewish philosopher that died a few days ago, Martin Buber, “It’s wrong because it substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.” That’s it. (Yes, sir)
I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables. Now you know in India, there was the caste system—and India has done a marvelous job in grappling with this problem—but you had your full caste and individuals were in one of the castes. And then you had some sixty or seventy million people who were considered outcasts. They were the untouchables; they could not go places that other people went; they could not do certain things. And this was one of the things that Mahatma Gandhi battled—along with his struggle to end the long night of colonialism—also to end the long night of the caste system and caste untouchability. You remember some of his great fasts were around the question of making equality a reality for the Harijans, as they were called, the “untouchables.” He called them the children of God, and he even adopted an untouchable as his daughter. He demonstrated in his own personal life and in his family that he was going to revolt against a whole idea. And I remember that afternoon when I stood up in that school. The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” And for the moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable. (Glory to God)
Pretty soon my mind dashed back across the mighty Atlantic. And I started thinking about the fact that at that time no matter how much I needed to rest my tired body after a long night of travel, I couldn’t stop in the average motel of the highways and the hotels of the cities of the South. I started thinking about the fact that no matter how long an old Negro woman had been shopping downtown and got a little tired and needed to get a hamburger or a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, she couldn’t get it there. (Preach) I started thinking about the fact that still in too many instances, Negroes have to go to the back of the bus and have to stand up over empty seats. (Yes, sir) I started thinking about the fact that my children and the other children that would be born would have to go to segregated schools. I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: (Make it plain) these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attended inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities. And I said to myself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” And this is the evilness of segregation: it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We hold these truths to be self-evident, if we are to be a great nation, that all men (all men) are created equal. God’s black children are as significant as his white children. (Yes, sir) “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” One day we will learn this.
The other day Mrs. King and I spent about ten days down in Jamaica. I’d gone down to deliver the commencement address at the University of the West Indies. I always love to go that great island which I consider the most beautiful island in all the world. The government prevailed upon us to be their guests and spend some time and try to get a little rest while there on the speaking tour. And so for those days we traveled all over Jamaica. And over and over again I was impressed by one thing. Here you have people from many national backgrounds: Chinese, Indians, so-called Negroes, and you can just go down the line, Europeans, European and people from many, many nations. Do you know they all live there and they have a motto in Jamaica, “Out of many people, one people.” And they say, “Here in Jamaica we are not Chinese, (Make it plain) we are not Japanese, we are not Indians, we are not Negroes, we are not Englishmen, we are not Canadians. But we are all one big family of Jamaicans.” One day, here in America, I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans. Not white Americans, not black Americans, not Jewish or Gentile Americans, not Irish or Italian Americans, not Mexican Americans, not Puerto Rican Americans, but just Americans. One big family of Americans.
And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we got to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow if we can’t solve the problem in America the world can’t solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities. (Make it plain) He set us between two great oceans; (Yes, sir) made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (Yes, sir) are created equal.”
Now that doesn’t only apply on the race issue, it applies on the class question. You know, sometimes a class system can be as vicious and evil as a system based on racial injustice. (Yes, sir) When we say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and when we live it out, we know as I say so often that the “no D.” is as significant as the “Ph.D.” And the man who has been to “No House” is as significant as the man who’s been to Morehouse. (Make it plain today) We build our little class systems, and you know you got a lot of Negroes with classism in their veins. (Sure) You know that they don’t want to be bothered with certain other Negroes and they try to separate themselves from them. (Amen)
I remember when I was in theological school, and we were coming to the end of our years there, a classmate—he came to me to talk with me—said that he wanted to invite his mother up. And she’d struggled in order to help him get through school. He wanted to invite his mother up, but he said, “You know, the problem is I don’t know if she would quite fit in this atmosphere. You know, her verbs aren’t quite right; and she doesn’t know how to dress too well; she lives in a rural area.” And I wanted to say to him so bad that you aren’t fit to finish this school. (Yes) If you cannot acknowledge your mother, if you cannot acknowledge your brothers and sisters, even if they have not risen to the heights of educational attainment, then you aren’t fit (Have mercy) to go out and try to preach to men and women. (Amen)
Oh, I’ll tell you this morning, and you learn this and you discover the meaning of “God’s image.” You’ll know what the New Testament means when it says that “I revealed it to babes and so often withheld it from the wise.” And I have learned a great deal in my few years, not only from the philosophers that I have studied with in the universities, not only from the theologians and the psychologists and the historians, but so often from that humble human being who didn’t have the opportunity to get an education but who had something basic deep down within. (Yes) Sometimes Aunt Jane on her knees can get more truth than the philosopher on his tiptoes. (Yes, Amen) And this is what “all men are made in the image of God” tells us. We must believe this and we must live by it. (Yes)
This is why we must join the war against poverty (Yes, sir) and believe in the dignity of all work. What makes a job menial? I’m tired of this stuff about menial labor. What makes it menial is that we don’t pay folk anything. (Yes, sir) Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life. And no matter what the job is it takes on dignity.
I submit to you when I took off on that plane this morning, I saw men go out there in their overalls. (Yes, sir, Every time) I saw them working on things here and there, and saw some more going out there to put the breakfast on there so that we could eat on our way to Atlanta. (Make it plain) And I said to myself that these people who constitute the ground crew are just as significant as the pilot, because this plane couldn’t move if you didn’t have the ground crew. (Amen) I submit to you that in Hugh Spaulding or Grady Hospital, (Preach it) the woman or the man who goes in there to sweep the floor is just as significant as the doctor, (Yes) because if he doesn’t get that dust off the floor germs will begin to circulate. And those same germs can do injury and harm to the human being. I submit to you this morning (Yes) that there is dignity in all work (Have mercy) when we learn to pay people decent wages. Whoever cooks in your house, whoever sweeps the floor in your house is just as significant as anybody who lives in that house. (Amen) And everybody that we call a maid is serving God in a significant way. (Preach it) And I love the maids, I love the people who have been ignored, and I want to see them get the kind of wages that they need. And their job is no longer a menial job, (No, sir) for you come to see its worth and its dignity.
Are we really taking this thing seriously? “All men are created equal.” (Amen) And that means that every man who lives in a slum today (Preach it) is just as significant as John D., Nelson, or any other Rockefeller. Every man who lives in the slum is just as significant as Henry Ford. All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that can’t be separated from you. [clap] Go down and tell them, (No) “You may take my life, but you can’t take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can’t take my right to liberty. You may take from me the desire, you may take from me the propensity to pursue happiness, but you can’t take from me my right to pursue happiness.” (Yes) “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Yes, sir)
Now there’s another thing that we must never forget. If we are going to make the American dream a reality, (Yes) we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. This problem isn’t going to solve itself, however much [word inaudible] people tell us this. However much the Uncle Toms and Nervous Nellies in the Negro communities tell us this, this problem isn’t just going to work itself out. (No, sir) History is the long story of the fact (Yes) that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment. And we must say now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time to make Georgia a better state. Now is the time to make the United States a better nation. (Yes) We must live with that, and we must believe that.
And I would like to say to you this morning what I’ve tried to say all over this nation, what I believe firmly: that in seeking to make the dream a reality we must use and adopt a proper method. I’m more convinced than ever before that nonviolence is the way. I’m more convinced than ever before that violence is impractical as well as immoral. If we are to build right here a better America, we have a method (Yes, sir) as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. We need not hate; we need not use violence. We can stand up before our most violent opponent and say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. (Make it plain) Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail. (Make it plain) We will go in those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. (Amen) Somehow go around the country and use your propaganda agents to make it appear that we are not fit culturally, morally, or otherwise for integration, and we will still love you. (Yes) Threaten our children and bomb our homes, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. (Yeah)
But be assured that we will ride you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process.” And our victory will be a double victory.
Oh yes, love is the way. (Yes) Love is the only absolute. More and more I see this. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear. (You bet, Yes) I’ve seen it on the faces of too many sheriffs of the South—I’ve seen hate. In the faces and even the walk of too many Klansmen of the South, I’ve seen hate. Hate distorts the personality. Hate does something to the soul that causes one to lose his objectivity. The man who hates can’t think straight; (Amen) the man who hates can’t reason right; the man who hates can’t see right; the man who hates can’t walk right. (Yeah) And I know now that Jesus is right, (Yeah) that love is the way. And this is why John said, “God is love,” (Yes, sir) so that he who hates does not know God, but he who loves (get in the door) at that moment has the key that opens the door (Yeah) to the meaning of ultimate reality. So this morning there is so much that we have to offer to the world. (Yes, sir)
We have a great dream. (Great dream) It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.
About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. (Yes) As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; (Lord) I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. (Lord, Lord) I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. (Lord) I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died. And oh, I continue to see it shattered as I walk through the Harlems of our nation (Yes) and see sometimes ten and fifteen Negroes trying to live in one or two rooms. (Yes) I’ve been down to the Delta of Mississippi since then, and I’ve seen my dream shattered as I met hundreds of people who didn’t earn more than six or seven hundred dollars a week. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago (Make it plain) and seen Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. And they see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. And not only Negroes at this point. I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. (Yeah) And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty. (Make it plain)
So yes, the dream has been shattered, (Amen) and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. (No, sir) I still have a dream (A dream, Yes, sir) that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, and freedom for their spirits. (Yes)
I still have a dream this morning: (Yes) one day all of God’s black children will be respected like his white children.
I still have a dream this morning (Yes) that one day the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.
I still have a dream this morning that one day all men everywhere will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
I still have a dream this morning (Yes, sir) that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
I still have a dream this morning (Amen) that truth will reign supreme and all of God’s children will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. And when this day comes the morning stars will sing together (Yes) and the sons of God will shout for joy.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (All right) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, (Yes, sir) that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We open the doors of the church now. If someone needs to accept Christ, (Yes, sir) this is a marvelous opportunity, a great moment to make a decision. And as we sing together, we bid you come at this time by Christian experience, baptism, watch care. But come at this moment, become a part of this great Christian fellowship and accept Christ (Yes, sir) as your personal savior.
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