The American Dream   /   Summer 2013   /    The American Dream

Martin Luther King and the American Dream

A Conversation with Jonathan Rieder

Joseph E. Davis

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers the “I Have a Dream” speech, August 18, 1963, Washington, DC; Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph E. Davis: Martin Luther King often refers to the American Dream. His commencement address at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, for instance, in 1961, was on the American Dream. How did King understand the Dream?

Jonathan Rieder: First, you have to be very careful when you try to fathom the meaning of King’s words. There’s been a long, scholarly tendency to look at his rhetoric as if it reflects a formal belief system. And sometimes it does. But a phrase like “The Dream” was also a rhetorical means that he used for particular ends depending on the occasion. You mentioned the Lincoln University speech—he was speaking to black students at an historic black college, and he was using “The Dream” to inspire them to demand fair treatment. That’s why he combined the appeal to the Dream with exhortations to black pride and quoted one of his favorite lines from a British Abolitionist poet that celebrates “fleecy locks” and “dark complexion.” When King invoked the American Dream before a gathering of the AFL-CIO [the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] in 1961, he was bending over backwards to show labor that the black struggle for fair treatment was the same as labor’s struggle, which also had required protests and civil disobedience. It’s legitimation with a refined version of street edge, a kind of hoisting the audience with its own petard.

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