Standing on the Steps of Greatness: I Have a Dream
Laura R. Brown
Texas State University, San Marcos

It is the summer of 1963. The federal minimum wage is $1.25. Sandy Koufax is having an excellent year and could lead the Dodgers all the way to the World Series. A young fighter named Cassius Clay is starting to make a name for himself – and that name is Muhammed Ali. Another young man by the name of John F. Kennedy has lived in the White House for the past two and a half years, but his reign will end abruptly in just a few short months. The United States has peacekeeping troops in Vietnam and just ended the Cuban Missile Crisis with the USSR . John Glenn recently orbited the Earth for the first time, but no one has yet been to the moon. The Beatles and Bob Dylan are superstars. Marilyn Monroe was recently found dead in her home. Another young man, Medgar Evers, was assassinated at his home on June 12th of this year because of his association with the civil rights movement, but his killer, a white man, will not see justice for another 30 years (Mackaman, n.d.; Ratnikas, n.d.). It was at this moment in history that the Civil Rights Movement not only arrived, but thrived, and accomplished many of their goals in a relatively short period of time. Even though the individual costs were significant, the societal gains were substantial. In order to appreciate the historical context in which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) we must first examine the place from which the speech was delivered: The Lincoln Memorial.

Historical Context

The Lincoln Memorial
As the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln led this country through the Civil War and led the fight against slavery culminating in the ratification of the 13th amendment after delivering the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His time as President was cut short by his assassination at Ford’s Theater in April, 1865. The Memorial in Washington D.C. was erected in his honor and completed in 1922. Many famous speeches and events have taken place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but the most well-known speech is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963). The speech is so famous, that a marble step was inscribed in 2003 with the text “I Have a Dream/ Martin Luther King, Jr./March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom/August 28, 1963” on the very spot where Dr. King stood to deliver the speech.

Civil Rights Movement & March on Washington
One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the United States was still torn by racial injustice. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote, and Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); several states had passed Jim Crow Laws (n.d.) to prevent anyone from exercising those rights (Euchner, 2010). At President Kennedy’s request, Congress introduced a bill (HR 7152) to grant equality to blacks within the United States on June 19, 1963 (Mackaman, n.d.), exactly one week after Medgar Evers was shot and more than 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln thought he was doing the same thing. The House of Representatives and Senate argued every point of this bill for several weeks but did not seem to be making any progress. It was in support of this bill that the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” was organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin with help from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Civil Rights Movement Veterans [CRMVET], n.d.; Ladner, 2003; Rollins, 2003). The march took place on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, starting from the Washington Monument and ending at the Lincoln Memorial approximately one mile away (CRMVET, n.d.). Many famous celebrities stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day showing their support for the cause: Josephine Baker, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Baldwin, Joan Baez, Bobby Dylan, Odetta, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Mahalia Jackson just to name a few (Ladner, 2003; Rollins, 2003).

People from all over the country were bussed into Washington D.C. for the March on Washington. More than 2,000 busses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered aircraft, and hundreds of cars converged on Washington, D.C. for this historic event (CRMVET, 2011). No other event in history had ever placed so many people in Washington D.C. at the same time. Estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 people who participated in the March with 75-80% of those being black. Many reporters noted in their articles and headlines on the days following the event how surprised many Americans were when they saw this display of non-violent protest (Childs, 1963; Freedman, 1963; Reston, 1963) especially after seeing similar events in the past – Birmingham, for example, which started as a non-violent protest but ended in violence and bloodshed. The assassination of Medgar Evers was also fresh in the minds of many viewers. Could this March be a form of retaliation? Many news reports at the time presented the March as a potential 1992 Rodney King Los Angeles riot, so they were pleasantly surprised to see happy faces rather than looters and rioters. Black Americans did much to support their cause on this day just by being nice and courteous (Hartford, 2002; “Kennedy asks speedup in Civil Rights Drive,” 1963; Stanford, 1963; Zellner, 2002).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was a Baptist minister who was well known for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement. He led numerous marches and non-violent protests in the South such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (King, 1998). Dr. King also founded the SCLC with Ralph Abernathy and other Civil Rights activists (Euchner, 2010). As President and founder of the SCLC, Dr. King was chosen to speak at the March on Washington with five other religious leaders: Rev. Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Uri Miller, President Synagogue Council of America; Matthew Ahmann, Executive Director National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress; and Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church of the USA (“March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” 1963). His speech was late in the program, but prior to the reading of The Pledge by A. Philip Randolph, and the Benediction by Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College (“March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” 1963). Dr. King was 34 years old at the time the speech was given.


According to Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii). Burke used this same idea in the dramatistic pentad. This theory is based on the idea that everything that happens in the world is dramatic in nature and can be explained in terms of motive, or the ratio relationship between the five parts of the pentad. In order to fully understand this ratio relationship, the definitions of the five parts of the pentad are given next.

The five parts of the pentad include: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (Burke, 1969). The act is what happens in word, thought, or deed. The scene describes when and where the action took place. The agent is the person, institution, or kind of person who performed the act. The agency is the means or instrument used to perform the act. The purpose is generally the most widely contested piece of the pentad, but the reasoning should follow directly from the evidence given in the other four areas. By looking at these five areas scholars are able to critically analyze human symbolic interaction (Burgchardt, 2010).

Scholars have used Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad since 1941 in order to explain rhetorical actions such as comparing various responses to the homosexual community. Barry Brummett (1979) applied the pentad to the ideology of the gay rights controversies of Dade County and St. Paul, MN, to argue for the framing of an event as a ratio of act to agent, but could be used to compare any of the parts of the pentad. Robert Westerfelhaus (1998) used the pentad to compare the rhetoric of two popes in recent history. In this instance, when the pope declared the church’s view on homosexuality it had significant implications worldwide. The previous pope had declared both the actor and the act as sins, but the current pope distinguished between the two in order to encourage priests to minister to the sinner while still condemning the sin.
The pentad is not limited to rhetorical analysis within the communication discipline. It has also been very useful in the political arena. David Ling (1970) used the pentad to describe Senator Kennedy’s response to Chappaquiddick. This method helped to explain how the Senator managed to retain his place as a senator of Massachusetts, but was not able to secure a running for the presidency. Kelley (1987) used the pentad to explain the effectiveness of George Hansen’s rhetoric during his bid for re-election. Even though he was not elected, his rhetoric was successful in the sense that he was able to avoid blame for past wrongdoings. Birdsell (1987) also compared Ronald Reagan’s responses to the two bombings that took place in 1987. His response to each location differed based on which aspect of the pentad was emphasized: in Lebanon the scene was emphasized, but in Grenada the agent was seen as the dominant factor.

Burke’s dramatistic pentad has also been used to analyze organizations and the healthcare industry. Walker & Nonin (2001) used the pentad to analyze a company picnic. Their conclusion was “that it provides a useful model to guide the analysis of diverse organizational texts” (Walker & Nonin, 2001, p. 266). Beck (2006) also used the pentad to qualitatively analyze narratives of birth trauma. Using the pentad in this manner allowed the researchers to “pinpoint where the trauma that women experienced occurred during labor and delivery” (Beck 2006, p. 453). This knowledge allowed them to focus future training on the way clinicians provide care to women during childbirth. According to Highley & Mercer, “the challenge extends not only to the concrete physical help that the mother needs, but to the subtle consideration and attention which help her maintain her self-control and thus her self respect” (as cited in Beck, 2006, 465). This consideration and attention are found in the patient and provider interaction (Sparks & Villagran, 2010). Meisenbach, Remke, Buzzanell, & Liu (2008) also used the pentad to look at the rhetoric of mothers, but focused on the organizational rhetoric of maternity leave. According to the researchers, when the agent was limited to mothers in the scene of home the mothers felt limited in their ability to negotiate maternity leave, but when the agent and scene included legislators and legislation the mothers were empowered to negotiate within their rights.
Burke’s dramatistic pentad has been used in multiple contexts in order to structure a discussion or arguments of rhetorical significance. Rhetoric looks at how language influences social action, and the pentad helps structure this argument.


Dramatistic Pentad
Having established the historical background and methodology, we turn now to the analysis of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s remarks on August 28, 1963. The analysis will attempt to look not only at the speech, but also place the speech into the context in which it was given.

Act. We look back at the ““I Have a Dream” (King, 1963)” speech now as one of the best speeches of all time, but newspaper clippings and journal entries from 1963 were less enthusiastic (Hartford, 2002; Stanford, 1963; Zellner, 2002). The other speeches of the day addressed specific aspects of the Civil Rights Act and spoke to the immediate concerns of the audience. Dr. King’s speech was more enduring and resonated with the general public, especially those concerned with freedom and equality but not necessarily the specific details of the Civil Rights Act. First, Roy Wilkins (NAACP) told the crowd that President Kennedy’s bill was “little more than sugar water” and “what is needed in the present crisis is not halfway and halfhearted measures, but action bold and adequate to square American democracy’s performance with its promises of full citizenship rights and equal opportunity for all Americans” (Kensworthy, 1963, p. 1; Stanford, 1963, p. 1). Shortly after Wilkins’ remarks, John Lewis (SNCC) gave a speech that was hotly debated and re-written several times (some said he was censored) prior to that hot summer day (Euchner, 2010). Even in its revised form it still included phrases such as “patience is a dirty and nasty word,” “we want our freedom now,” and “there’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality in its present form” (“Kennedy asks speedup in civil rights drive,” 1963, p. 1). In contrast, Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO) spoke directly to Congress and urged them to immediately vote for Kennedy’s bill (Stanford, 1963). The ladies and gentlemen who spoke and sang before Dr. King were intelligent and interesting, but not as compelling.

Even though these speakers held the audience’s attention at the time, none of these speeches were as timeless as Dr. King’s. Even President Kennedy, watching the crowd out his window, but the speech on television, remarked, “He’s damned good” (Euchner, 2010, p. 204). What makes the speech so memorable, even 48 years later, is the use of metaphors and repetition. Dr. King’s speech was also marked by hope and promise of better days compared to the anger and hatred spoken of by the other speakers that day. Dr. King’s background as a Southern Baptist preacher from Crozer Theological Seminary gave him the tools he needed to speak extemporaneously with enduring eloquence.

Scene. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was more than just a collection of speeches, singers, and peaceful protesters; it was a catalyst, a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Before this day Americans were divided on their response to the call for equal rights, but after seeing the civility and peaceful displays on their televisions (or in their hometown), many Americans who had locked themselves into their homes on the morning of the protest began opening their doors to cheer on the crowds as they left town (Euchner, 2010). Washington DC had prepared itself for a full riot with police escorts and the National Guard, but instead were witness to a “church picnic” or as Kennedy himself stated, “a deep fervor, and quiet dignity” (Kensworthy, 1963, p. 1; Stanford, 1963, p. 1). In an interview with Sheila Michaels (CORE, SNCC), Bruce Hartford (CORE, NVAC, SCLC) described the scene at the time:

There had been all this stuff in the newspaper, — no one will come, or it’ll be a disaster, the Civil Rights Movement is a hoax, it’s just a few malcontents, outside-agitators, communist propaganda, yada, yada, yada. And then other papers were in total panic mode — Call out the National Guard! Alert the 101st Airborne! Close the liquor stores! Hide the white women! Evacuate the children to the countryside! It was like they thought the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan were descending on the nation’s capital to rape, ravage, and pillage. And we’d just had Birmingham, where fire hoses and police dogs were used to attack children in Kelly Ingram park, nonviolent demonstrators had been clubbed, beaten, and arrested. (Hartford, 2002, p. 1)

The nation sighed a collective sigh of relief when the protesters in Washington proved the newspapers wrong.

The setting of Dr. King’s speech resonates even more with a modern American audience than it did at the time. Dr. King’s assassination further connected him to President Lincoln, who was also shot while attempting to further civil rights in this country. Dr. King’s words link us not only to President Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address, but also the Declaration of Independence, biblical passages, spiritual songs, and even Shakespeare. When asked to recall the significance of that day 40 years later, U.S. Representative John Lewis, who also spoke that day as the President of the SNCC, said,

Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations. (Suarez, 2003, p. 1).

Also connecting the modern American audience to this important setting is the recent unveiling of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington D.C. The monument is located at 1964 Independence Avenue, in honor of the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed. Dr. King’s statue is situated within sight of Lincoln’s memorial – where anyone could stand on the step where Dr. King stood, and stand on the steps of greatness.

Agent. The American people are the agent in this analysis. Not just the people who were in the audience on that day, but every American past, present, and future. Dr. King spoke to all of us. The people of 1963 were inspired to continue working towards freedom and equality, and Dr. King’s words moved and inspired future audiences to pass the Civil Rights Act and eliminate Jim Crow laws. Every generation then and since has worked together to provide equal opportunities for every American regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, genetic information, or reprisal. These opportunities exist now when looking for work or a place to live. Even though there are some Americans who still believe in segregation and white supremacy, their numbers are quickly dwindling.

Agency. Dr. King’s speech was prepared ahead of time so that it would meet the ten-minute time limit, but he went off-script several minutes into the speech, for a total of 17 minutes. Mahalia Jackson, who had just sung a negro spiritual to the crowd, called out from behind Dr. King, “tell them about the dream Martin!” He did and it “saved the speech and the day and the rest is history” (Zellner, 2002, p.1). Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s speechwriter, was sitting about fifteen feet away while the speech was presented. He saw King grab the podium, lean back, and turn over the prepared text. “These people don’t know it, but they are about to go to church,” said Jones, (Euchner, 2010, p. 194). It was this impromptu section that we are most familiar with today. This section begins with the phrase “I have a dream.” Dr. King’s dream would not be fulfilled in his lifetime, cut short only four years later.

Purpose. An article in the Los Angeles Times commented that the “matchless eloquence” displayed by King, “a supreme orator” of “a type so rare as almost to be forgotten in our age,” put to shame the advocates of segregation by inspiring the “conscience of America” with the justice of the civil-rights cause (Freedman, 1963, p. 1). President Obama, the first black U.S. president, spoke of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream (borrowing passages from his speech) exactly 45 years later:

The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead – people of every creed and color, from every walk of life – is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one. “We cannot walk alone,” the preacher cried. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” America, we cannot turn back. .. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise – that American promise – and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess. (Obama, 2008, p. 1)

Obama’s words are a catalyst for hope and change in our lifetime, and the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream: a country united and led by a man of color.


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Abbreviations & Titles
AFL-CIO American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations
CORE Congress of Racial Equality
CRMVET Civil Rights Movement Veterans
NAACP National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
NVAC Non-Violent Action Committee
SCLC Southern Christian Leadership Conference
SNCC Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
USSR Union of Soviet Socialist Republics