The Economic Message Behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Dream' Speech

Solving income inequality was key to MLK's dream

National Mall during the 'I Have a Dream' speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

National Archives

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, we thought it would be fitting to present what is known as the “I Have a Dream” speech in the economic context in which it was originally created. Many remember the speech as a rallying cry for equality for all people, which it was. But its original intent was to call for an end to economic inequality for all people and to demand the right to gainful employment for all. The full text of the speech and an audio recording are available from Stanford University.

Key Takeaways

  • The original intent behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was an appeal to end economic and employment inequalities.
  • Delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, the speech was King's address as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • King believed the market operation of the American economy propagated unemployment, discrimination, and economic injustice.
  • After the "Dream" speech, Dr. King continued to push for economic reforms that addressed the welfare of all people, most notably in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

'I Have a Dream' and the Civil Rights Movement

Though we commonly refer to it as the "Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic address was really a combination of several speeches that Dr. King had been delivering during the tumultuous years of 1962 and 1963 as the civil rights movement was in full swing in America. Dr. King delivered the speech on Aug. 28, 1963, from the Lincoln Memorial, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was an homage to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and was also timed to pay tribute to the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The March on Washington, August 23, 1963
Bettman/Getty Images.

Most people remember these thunderous and passionate lines from the speech:

"…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!"

However, it is the beginning of the speech, the third paragraph, that speaks to righting the wrongs of the economic inequalities suffered by African Americans since their emancipation.

“In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. 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…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.”

The notion of the government writing a bad check was nothing new in America. Alexander Hamilton and many other founders of the American republic used similar metaphors to describe our profligacy throughout history. Given the magnitude of the U.S. deficit, we are arguably writing bad checks every day as a nation. However, Dr. King was not addressing the nation’s debt in that context at all.

Income Inequality

King’s point was that the economic system America had grown into had left African Americans and poor people behind entirely.

Sadly, income inequality has only become worse in the U.S. and around the world in the past 60 years. Wealth is concentrated in a very narrow percentile. Many people in the world live on meager wages. For those fortunate enough to have stable jobs, wage growth has barely budged—relative to inflation—in 50 years.The path to a stable middle-class life has disappeared for millions of hardworking people who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t save or invest for the future.

The Market Operation of the Economy

In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King addresses the market operation of our economy, which propagates unemployment and idleness. Though King had no idea that technology, artificial intelligence, and smart robots might one day come for our jobs, he was referring to the profit-driven motivations behind our market system that compel executives to maximize the bottom line and boost share prices.

Though we root for higher profits as investors, we don’t think enough about creating a sustainable economic system that addresses the welfare of all people or about the impact on our planet. King addressed the former through these words:

"...We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty."

King’s controversial solution was to force the government to create jobs to "enhance the social good" for those people who could not find work. Some may call that a welfare state. Others might consider it a form of socialism. For King, it was about the fundamental right to work so that everyone could reach their potential and become consumers to keep the economic pump primed. In his own words:

"The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. When they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available…"
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images.

Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images 

What Was the Message Behind the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech was a call for equality. It identified the faults of America and what measures were needed to make it a better place. A central theme throughout the speech was the importance of everyone being treated equally.  

What Is the Economic Metaphor Dr. King Uses Throughout the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

Dr. King often used metaphors in his speeches. In his “Dream” speech, he used the metaphor of a bad check to illustrate the inequality and economic injustice that many faced.

What Dream Did Martin Luther King Jr. Have for the Economy?

Dr. King wanted the government to eradicate poverty by giving every American a guaranteed, reasonable income.

The Bottom Line

The above examples were not the only times King addressed economic issues in writing or in a speech. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., he delivered a speech at Mason Temple in support of striking sanitation workers. It’s worth a read.

Though some may not agree with his ideas or the principles behind the civil rights movement, his impact is undeniable. Dr. King was able to connect the rights of all people in America to the economic system and the injustices it manifests through his essays, speeches, and teachings in ways that profoundly changed the moral consciousness of this country.

For that and so many other reasons, we as a nation choose to honor and celebrate him each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Article Sources
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  1. Stanford University. "Freedom’s Ring King’s 'I Have a Dream' Speech."

  2. National Archives. "Martin Luther King, Jr."

  3. Stanford University. "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

  4. Stanford University. "I Have a Dream."

  5. Congressional Budget Office. "Monthly Budget Review: Summary for Fiscal Year 2021."

  6. World Economic Forum. "World Inequality Report 2022."

  7. World Economic Forum. "World Inequality Report 2022," Pages 225 and 226.

  8. World Economic Forum. "World Inequality Report 2022," Page 91.

  9. The Brookings Institution. "With Inflation Surging, Big Companies’ Wage Upticks Aren’t Nearly Enough."

  10. Pew Research Center. "For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged in Decades."

  11. Martin Luther King Jr. "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" Beacon Press, 2010.