Had Martin Luther King Jr. stuck to the script, the United States never would have heard his dream.
On August 27, 1963 — the night before one of U.S. history’s most consequential gatherings and speeches — Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues set up shop in Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel, where they made some final preparations for King’s speech the next day.
“Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’,” adviser Wyatt Walker told King, according to the Guardian. “It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.”
King had indeed used the line before: once at a Detroit rally and again at a Chicago fundraiser. This speech, broadcast on all three television networks and thus before a demographic otherwise unfamiliar with King, had to be different, his advisers said.
To King’s advisers, this necessary difference extended beyond mere oration and into the March on Washington’s very schedule. Originally, planners allotted march speakers five minutes each, with King speaking in the middle for the same length of time. One of King’s advisers, attorney and speechwriter Clarence Jones, pushed for an alternative arrangement just the night before — unwittingly helping to set the stage for a speech on which history would look back with great reverence.
“I said you run the risk…that after he speaks a lot of the people at the march will get up and leave,” Jones told WTOP about how the events transpired.
Instead, Jones recommended that King speak at the end of the event — and for the longest amount of time. After an evening of constant back and forth, King agreed. Before he retired to his bedroom, Jones handed King the speech he had prepared for his review.
It was, Jones later recounted, “a summary of what we had discussed before” that he had “simply put…into textual form in case he wanted to use that to reference in putting his speech together.”
Document in hand, King bade his colleagues adieu. “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord,” King said, according to the Guardian. “I will see you all tomorrow.”
At 4 AM, the story goes that King gave the text of his speech to his aides for print and distribution. Apparently abiding by Walker’s recommendation, the “I have a dream” line did not appear in the text at all.
The Day The “Dream” Took Flight
The March on Washington defied all expectations. Organizers planned for 100,000 people to occupy the National Mall that day; instead, around 250,000 people congregated amid the sticky August heat to demand civil and economic rights for African-Americans and listen to civil rights leaders address the nation. King appeared 16th on the official program — just before the benediction and pledge.
When King’s time came to speak, he approached the podium with one critical figure behind him: Mahalia Jackson. According to Jones, King considered the “Queen of Gospel” because she was someone to whom he would turn when things got rough. “When Martin would get low…he would track Mahalia down, wherever she was, and call her on the phone,” Jones writes in Behind the Dream, a book about the speech.
As King spoke, he initially kept very close to the script. About midway through, King paused and looked out toward the crowd of hundreds of thousands. That’s when Jackson — there to sing before and after King’s address — cried out to King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
King responded almost reflexively to Jackson — some said his physical posture changed after Jackson’s call — and to those who understood their relationship, this wasn’t exactly surprising. It was “one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers,” Jones told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Anybody else who would yell at him, he probably would’ve ignored it. He didn’t ignore Mahalia Jackson.”
Indeed, video footage shows King push his notes aside, opting instead to tell the nation about the future he envisioned for the nation in a manner not dissimilar from his sermons. “I turned to somebody standing next to me and I said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church’,” Jones said.
After an extended pause punctuated by Jackson’s call, King would make history — and on the spot. “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,” King said extemporaneously, “I still have a dream.”
The “Dream’s” Reception
While King had publicly described his dream prior to his August 28 speech, he had never done so on such a large scale.
“The overwhelming majority of people in America, white people particularly, had never heard or seen Martin Luther King, Jr. speak before,” Jones said. “So, what you had that Wednesday, August 28, 1963, is that you had television pictures and the voice of Martin Luther King rebroadcast as part of the evening news in the top 100 television markets in the country. So, when the nation saw and heard this person speaking, they had as delayed reaction as I had when [the speech] was given. I was mesmerized.”
Not everyone experienced the same mesmerization as Jones, however. While president John F. Kennedy remarked, “He’s damned good, damned good,” others thought the speech fell a bit flat.
“I thought it was a good speech,” civil rights activist John Lewis, who addressed the march earlier that day, said. “But it was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense that he was falling short. He hadn’t locked into that power he so often found.”
Nor did the nation really “lock in” to the power of King’s message. In the years that followed his speech and culminated in his assassination, King suffered a number of setbacks.
Indeed, change was slow to come to the U.S., no matter how urgent the dream. Over time, King’s optimism would wane along with his favorability, due at least in part to his increasingly vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and the treatment of the working class in America.
“There was no reason to believe that King’s speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole,” The Dream author Drew Hansen writes. “King’s speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record.”
In fact, as historians would note, it wouldn’t be until King’s April 1968 assassination that the public would “rediscover” the speech and that it would become “one of those things that we look to when we want to know what America means,” Hansen said.
And to think, had it not been for an assertive speechwriter and the sudden cry of a gospel singer, King’s “Dream” may have never seen the light of day.
Next, discover ten fascinating things you never knew about Martin Luther King Jr. Then, read about the female civil rights leaders whose names you didn’t learn in history class.