50th Anniversary of ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Aug. 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Image/National Archives and Records Administration

Staff Report

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The speech is considered a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.

In the wake of the speech and march, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the speech by adding it to the United States National Recording Registry.

In 2003, the National Park Service dedicated an inscribed marble pedestal to commemorate the location of King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

The speech did not appear in writing until August 1983, when a transcript was published in the Washington Post. Because King’s speech was broadcast to a large radio and television audience, there was controversy about the copyright status of the speech. If the performance of the speech constituted “general publication” – it would have entered the public domain due to King’s failure to register the speech with the Registrar of Copyrights.

If the performance only constituted “limited publication”, however, King retained common law copyright. This led to a lawsuit, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., which established that the King estate does hold copyright over the speech and had standing to sue; the parties then settled.

Unlicensed use of the speech or a part of it can still be lawful in some circumstances, especially in jurisdictions under doctrines such as fair use or fair dealing. Under the applicable copyright laws, the speech will remain under copyright in the United States until 70 years after King’s death, thus until 2038.

As Dr. King waved goodbye to the audience, he handed George Raveling the original typewritten “I Have a Dream” speech. Raveling, now a retired basketball coach, was on the podium with Dr. King at that moment. Raveling still has custody of the original copy.

A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, and organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Ala., that attracted national attention following television news coverage of the brutal police response. King helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.

Best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience, Dr. King has become a national icon in the history of American progressivism.

Dr. King was assassinated during a speech April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. He was 39.

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