King's Dream The Legacy of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech Eric J. Sundquist

Icons of America
Publication date:
06 Jan 2009
Yale University Press
320 pages: 210 x 140mm
16 b/w illus.

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Includes the entire text of "I Have A Dream"

“I have a dream”—no words are more widely recognized, or more often repeated, than those called out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. King’s speech, elegantly structured and commanding in tone, has become shorthand not only for his own life but for the entire civil rights movement. In this new exploration of the “I have a dream” speech, Eric J. Sundquist places it in the history of American debates about racial justice—debates as old as the nation itself—and demonstrates how the speech, an exultant blend of grand poetry and powerful elocution, perfectly expressed the story of African American freedom.


This book is the first to set King’s speech within the cultural and rhetorical traditions on which the civil rights leader drew in crafting his oratory, as well as its essential historical contexts, from the early days of the republic through present-day Supreme Court rulings.  At a time when the meaning of the speech has been obscured by its appropriation for every conceivable cause, Sundquist clarifies the transformative power of King’s “Second Emancipation Proclamation” and its continuing relevance for contemporary arguments about equality.

Eric J. Sundquist is UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature, UCLA. He is author or editor of twelve books on American literature and culture, including the award-winning volumes To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature and Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America.

"The ['I Have a Dream'] speech and all that surrounds it—background and consequences—are brought magnificently to life in Eric Sundquist's new book, King's Dream. . . . In this book he gives us drama and emotion, a powerful sense of history combined with illuminating scholarship."—Anthony Lewis, New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)

“Writing in an unusually clear and cogent style, Sundquist analyzes the rhetorical precedents and the starburst of rhetorical, political, musical, and cultural associations related to ‘I Have a Dream.’”—Keith Miller, author of Voice of Deliverance 

"Sundquist's careful, thoughtful study unearths new and fascinating evidence of the rhetorical traditions in King's speech."—Drew D. Hansen, author of The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

"Eric Sundquist brings vividly to life a watershed moment in world history as he examines one of the most important political speeches of all time."—Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage

"In highlighting the roots and ongoing struggle over the content and use of the ['I Have a Dream'] speech, Eric J. Sundquist has produced one of the best short books we have on the ideas of racial equality from the early days of the American republic up to current Supreme Court decisions."—George Bornstein, Times Literary Supplement

"King's Dream . . . is irresistibly topical. . . . Sundquist is very good at showing how King's metaphors and allusions finesse a perennial tension—between the pragmatic and the apocalyptic—within African American political culture."—Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman 

"A fascinating new book. . . . [Sundquist] brings his historical and literary brilliance to the study of King, revealing the multiple meanings of the dream and the uses of King's words."—Edward J. Blum, San Diego Union-Tribune

"Eloquently, encyclopedically and exhaustively, Sundquist catalogues networks of juxtaposition and conjunction in relation to King's address. Classical allusions rub up against quotations from movies, videos, comic books, TV shows and the Internet."—George Elliott Clarke, Toronto Globe & Mail

“An insightful and incisive reading of what is probably the most familiar speech ever made by an American. . . illuminating and well-written.”—Robert Cook, Journal of American History

"Sundquist's close reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech reveals the essence of the Civil Rights movement in America. . . . . Sundquist's book represents perhaps the most detailed analysis of King's speech to date. It does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting King's words with the thoughts of other African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. . . . Sundquist powerfully reminds his readers that one cannot begin to comprehend the history of race relations in America without fully understanding the 'I Have a Dream' speech."—Raymond Frey, Magill's Literary Annual 2010