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In ‘Dream’ speech, M.L. King checked his rhetoric

Kristie Aronow

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the Washington Mall to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Almost everyone knows the closing portion of the speech, where King outlines his dreams, but did you know he opened using a banking analogy?

Martin Luther King delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech Aug. 28, 1963. Photo from National Archives

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said. “When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Most likely, King used this analogy because money is a universal language. As he spoke to an audience of 250,000 civil rights supporters 50 years ago today, he set up the soaring rhetoric by employing a commonplace idea — that there’s a moral imperative to honor the checks we write, whether singly or as a nation.

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