Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., UBC English Prof. Ian Hill reflects on MLK Jr.’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech
Ian Hill, an assistant professor in UBC’s Department of English whose research focuses on the history and theory of rhetoric, takes a closer look at the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and wonders what the civil rights leader would say if he was alive today.
Why has the “I Have a Dream” speech become so iconic?
There are several factors. One of them is simply the pervasiveness of the March on Washington and the speech itself on televised mass media in the United States at the time. It became famous because so many people saw it. The timing of the speech was important for its legacy–it was a violent summer in the U.S. as Americans witnessed televised police brutality in Birmingham, Alabama. When King Jr. said “now is the time” for racial equality, that message was what the majority of Americans wanted to hear.
What’s your favourite part of the speech?
I’d say my favourite passage is the “let freedom ring…” section. Here he transitions to letting freedom ring from more desolate mountaintops – like the Rocky Mountains of Colorado – to more specific mountaintop of Stone Mountain in Georgia, which is a racist monument and representative of the seat of prejudice and injustice. In a sense, with this passage he moved from a generalization to a specific place where activism was necessary.
If MLK Jr. was around today to give another speech, what do you think he would say?
Hypothetically, if he was to give a speech today, I think it would be a little less about politics and more about culture. Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s a lot of the political roadblocks towards racial equality in the U.S. were removed, but that didn’t solve racism. The questions he would raise in a speech today might be more about the ethical and cultural changes necessary to make equality an everyday practice, rather than being about a political ideal to be attained later. Alternatively, he might dream about the ability of the U.S. to fight racial injustice internationally, or he might dream about domestic policy problems like prison reform and economic equality.
Video: UBC Prof. Ian Hill discusses Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.