It was not particularly well known during his lifetime. And Desiderata became a huge hit.
Here Stevie Edwards looks at what makes it so memorable. His soaring rhetoric demanding racial justice and an integrated society became a mantra for the black community and is as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the US Declaration of Independence.
His words proved to be a touchstone for understanding the social and political upheaval of the time and gave the nation a vocabulary to express what was happening. The key message in the speech is that all people are created equal and, although not the case in America at the time, King felt it must be the case for the future.
He argued passionately and powerfully. So what were his compositional strategies and techniques? Stylistically the speech has been described as a political treatise, a work of poetry, and a masterfully delivered and improvised sermon, bursting with biblical language and imagery.
As well as rhythm and frequent repetition, alliteration is a hallmark device, used to bang home key points. The format is simple — always an aid to memorability!
It falls into two parts. The first half portrays not an idealised American dream but a picture of a seething American nightmare of racial injustice. It calls for action in a series of themed paragraphs.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The second half of the speech paints the dream of a better, fairer future of racial harmony and integration. The Speech 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 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 color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, and rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
At the end of the speech he brings in a unifying passage themed around freedom: So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California. But not only that — let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! Three factors added to the impact of the speech: Here are some famous definitions: The four ends of discourse are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and influence the will.
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