The Little-Known History of MLK's "I Have A Dream" Speech
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The following is an excerpt from The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream. Copyright © 2013 by Gary Younge. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE MARCH on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. asked his aides for advice about the speech he was due to make the next day. “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’” Wyatt Tee Walker told him. “It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.”
King had indeed employed the refrain several times before. It had featured in an address just a week earlier at a National Insurance Association fundraiser in Chicago and a few months before that at a huge rally in Detroit. Like most of his speeches, both had been well received. But neither had been regarded as particularly momentous.
While King, by this time, was a national political figure, relatively few outside the Black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full speech. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the March for Jobs and Freedom (the biggest event of its kind in the country’s history), this would be his introduction to the nation. He wanted a speech to fit the occasion.
Sitting in the lobby of Washington’s Willard Hotel, King called on his team for ideas. Walker’s was one contribution of many. “Suggestions just tumbled out,” recalled Clarence Jones, who wrote the final draft. “‘I think you should ...’ ‘Why don’t we ...’ ‘Martin, as I mentioned before ...’”
After a few hours King thanked them for their input. “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord,” he said. “I will see you all tomorrow.” When one of his advisers went to his room later that night, he had crossed out some words three or four times. King went to sleep at around 4 a.m.
A few hours later the march’s organizer, Bayard Rustin, wandered onto the Mall with some of his assistants to find security personnel and journalists outnumbering demonstrators. That morning a television news reporter in DC announced: “Not many people seem to be showing up. It doesn’t look as if it’s going to be very much.” The movement had high hopes for a large turnout and had originally set a goal of 100,000. From the reservations on coaches and trains alone, they guessed they should be at least close to that figure. But when the actual morning came, that did little to calm their nerves. Reporters badgered Rustin about the ramifications for both the event and the movement if the crowd turned out to be smaller than anticipated. Rustin, forever theatrical, took a round pocket watch from his trousers and some paper from his jacket. Examining first the paper and then the watch, he turned to the reporters and said: “Everything is right on schedule.” The piece of paper was blank.
As the morning progressed, the organizers’ apprehension subsided as the capital was transformed by protesters flooding in from all over the country. The first official Freedom Train arrived at Washington’s Union Station from Pittsburgh at 8:02, records Charles Euchner in Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington. Soon trains were pulling in every five to ten minutes. At the height of the flow, ten thousand people came through the station in twenty minutes while one hundred buses an hour rolled through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. By 10 a.m. the magnitude of the march was beyond doubt.