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The Little-Known History of MLK's 'I Have a Dream' Speech

When Martin Luther King Jr. asked his aides for advice about the speech, he was told, "Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’... it’s cliché."

Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

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. 

“We were surrounded by a moving sea of humanity,” wrote John Lewis, a young civil rights leader who addressed the crowd that day, as the throng began to move. “Tens of thousands of people just pouring out of Union Station, filling Constitution Avenue from curb to curb. It was truly awesome, the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in my life. I remember thinking, There goes America.”

Singers, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Josh White, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary kept the crowds entertained. Marchers who brought their own placards made a wide variety of demands and statements. “Horses have their own television shows. Dogs have their own television shows. Why Can’t Negroes have their own shows?” read one. “No US Dough to help Jim Crow Grow,” announced another. Yet another read: “Our Body in Motion, Our Life on the Line, We Demand Freedom of Mind.”

***

Rustin had limited the speakers that day to just five minutes each and threatened to come on with a crook and haul them from the podium when their time was up. But they all overran, and given the heat—87 degrees at noon—and the humidity, the mood began to wane. 

“There was . . . an air of subtle depression, of wistful apathy which existed in many,” wrote Norman Mailer. “One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the seventh inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3. The home team is ahead, but the tension is broken: one’s concern is no longer noble.”

King was the last speaker. By the time he reached the podium, many in the crowd had started to leave. “I tell students today, ‘There were no Jumbotrons back then,’” Rachelle Horowitz, who as a young activist had organized transport to the march, told me. “All people could see was a speck and they listened to it.” Not all those who remained could hear him properly, but those who could stood rapt. “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed,” said King as though he were wrapping up. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.”

Then he grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. “When he was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer,” Jones told me. “But from the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher.” Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: “Those people don’t know it but they’re about to go to church.”

A smattering of applause filled a pause more pregnant than most. 

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” 

“Aw shit,” said Wyatt Walker, who was on the Mall. “He’s using the dream.”

***

While the overall response to the speech was favorable at the time, reviews were mixed. The New York Timesran a front page story with the headline “I Have a Dream”; the Washington Posteditorial didn’t refer to the “I have a dream” passage at all. The Clarion-Ledgerin Jackson, Mississippi, ran a front-page photograph of the litter left behind with the headline: “Washington Is Clean Again with Negro Trash Removed.”

Anne Moody, a Black activist who’d made the trip from rural Mississippi, recalled: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” The late Edward Kennedy called it “the great aria of the civil rights movement.” Malcolm X told Rustin: “You know, this dream of King’s is going to be a nightmare before it’s over.” Motown set it in vinyl. John Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: “Despite its lack of substance ... more than anyone else that summer afternoon in 1963, [King] captured the spirit of hope and possibility that so many of us wanted to feel.” Looking back on how the speech resonated with both the march and the times, Clarence Jones says: “We caught lightning in a bottle that day.”

Fifty years on, the speech still enjoys both national and global acclaim. A survey, conducted in 1999 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M, of 137 leading scholars of public address named it the greatest speech of the twentieth century.

During the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, some protesters held up posters of King saying “I have a dream.” On the wall Israel has built around parts of the West Bank, someone has written: “I have a dream. This is not part of that dream.” The phrase “I have a dream” has been spotted in such disparate places as on a train in Budapest and on a mural in suburban Sydney. Asked in 2008 whether they thought the speech was “relevant to people of your generation,” 68 percent of Americans said yes, including 76 percent of Blacks and 67 percent of whites. Only 4 percent were not familiar with it. 

Why has the speech enjoyed such widespread and lasting resonance? “It was a good speech,” says Jones. “Substantively it was not his greatest speech. But it was the power of delivery and the power of the circumstances. The crowd, the march, the Lincoln Memorial, the beautiful day. So many intangible things came together. ... It was a perfect storm.”

***

[...]

MARTIN LUTHER KING delivered many speeches (at least 350 in 1963 alone). Many speeches have been delivered on civil rights and, indeed, were delivered at the March on Washington. So what was it that made this particular speech historical? And what makes it great? Why do we remember it? How do we remember it? What is it about it that we like to remember? And what about it have we chosen to forget?

When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 he was not particularly popular and the speech had not gained the legendary status it has today. Both he and the address could have gone the way of many great leaders and addresses and, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, been “amputated” from the body of history.

Paradoxically, while the “dream” segment is the most memorable element—so much so that it is most commonly referred to as “the I have a dream speech”—it was never included in King’s prepared text. Its addition was extemporaneous. Would the speech have been remembered in the same way, or even at all, if King had not taken that spontaneous turn?

It was not the only compelling refrain in the address. Near the beginning he talks about the United States’ reneging on its promises to African Americans: “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . a promissory note . . . for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” written by the drafters of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He goes on to argue that the country has paid with a bad check and effectively defaulted on its promise. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” he says. “So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Then, right at the end, he shifts to a riff borrowed from the nineteenth-century patriotic song “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” in particular the last line of its first verse: “Let freedom ring.” Starting with the more liberal North, he takes the crowd on an evocative tour of the United States, calling for freedom to ring from “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire . . . to the curvaceous slopes of California.” Finally, he takes a dark turn toward the South, including “every hill and molehill in Mississippi,” a state he has earlier described as “sweltering with the heat of injustice.”

While neither passage is quite as long as the “I have a dream” section, both are substantial and evocative. “Even the way it’s always referred to tells you everything you need to know about what people want to remember,” Jack O’Dell, one of King’s former aides, told me. “Nobody ever calls it the ‘bad check’ speech.”

Moreover, most who knew King and his work believe he gave at least one speech that deserved as much or perhaps more historical attention than that delivered to the March on Washington. “I think his speech four years later at the Riverside Church in New York, in which he condemned the war in Vietnam and talked about the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, was by far the best speech of his life in terms of sheer tone and substance,” argues Lewis, who is now a congressman.

But to bemoan the absence of King’s other great speeches, or other sections of the Washington speech, from public consciousness would be to mistake collective memory as being something other than selective and contingent. To honor King as an antiwar crusader, America would have had to come to terms with its militaristic impulses. Even as it winds down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there seems to have been little resolution on this point. Similarly, to recall King’s Washington speech through the metaphor of “the bad check” would demand an engagement with both the material legacy of racism and the material remedy of antiracism—a challenge the country has hardly begun to address.

Venerating his speech at the March on Washington through the dream sequence, however, upholds a positive (albeit metaphorical) diagnosis for an apparently chronic ailment—American racism. As such, it is a rare thing in almost any culture or nation— an optimistic oration about race that acknowledges the desperate circumstances that made it necessary while still projecting hope, patriotism, humanism, and militancy. “The speech explained black people’s concerns and demands simply and in an easily understandable fashion that was difficult to rebut,” veteran civil rights activist. Julian Bond told me. “And among King’s many speeches it is easily digestible by a white audience and more palatable to them, as opposed to his antiwar speeches and critiques of capitalism.”

In the age of Obama and the Tea Party, there is something in there for everyone. It speaks, in the vernacular of the Black church, with clarity and conviction to African Americans’ historical plight and looks forward to a time when that plight would be eliminated. Its nod to all that is sacred in American political culture, from the founding fathers to the American dream, makes it patriotic. It sets bigotry against color-blindness while prescribing no map for how we get from one to the other, simply telling the crowd to go home “knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

These strengths in the breadth of its appeal are also its flaws in terms of depth. It is in no small part appreciated so widely because the interpretations of what King was saying vary so widely. Polls show that while African Americans and American whites agree about the extent to which “the dream has been realized,” they profoundly disagree on the state of contemporary race relations. Hearing the same speech, they understand different things.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have been keen to co-opt both King and the speech. In 2010, on the forty-seventh anniversary of the speech, media personality and Tea Party favorite Glenn Beck held the “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, telling a crowd of around ninety thousand that “the man who stood down on those stairs . . . gave his life for everyone’s right to have a dream.” Almost a year later Black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain opened his speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference with the words “I have a dream.”

Their embrace of the speech, particularly when using elements out of context to challenge affirmative action and civil rights legislation, has made some Black intellectuals and activists wary. “The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding told me. “People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work.” Many fear that the speech can too easily be distorted in a manner that undermines the speaker’s legacy. “In the light of the determined misuse of King’s rhetoric, a modest proposal appears in order,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson has written. “A ten-year moratorium on listening to or reading ‘I Have a Dream.’ At first blush, such a proposal seems absurd and counterproductive. After all, King’s words have convinced many Americans that racial justice should be aggressively pursued. The sad truth is, however, that our political climate has eroded the real point of King’s beautiful words.”

These responses tell us at least as much about now as then, and perhaps more. The fiftieth anniversary of “I Have a Dream” arrives at a time when the president is Black, whites are destined to become a minority in little more than a generation, and civil rights– era protections are being systematically dismantled. Segregationists have all but disappeared, even if segregation as a lived experience has not. A civil rights movement that could cohere an event like the March on Washington no longer exists. Racism, however, remains, and so long as it does, the debate about its root causes will remain vexed.

In the speech King claims: “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” In terms of mass, popular, nonracial activism against Jim Crow, it would turn out to be the beginning of the end—a pivotal, seminal milestone in the push for social justice. Fifty years on, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation—not racism but formal, codified discrimination—the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus. While the struggle to defeat segregation was bitter and divisive, nobody today is seriously campaigning for its return or openly mourning its demise. The speech’s appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic, and public articulation of that victory.

For a Q&A with author Gary Younge click here.

Gary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian. He was based in the U.S. for 12 years before recently returning to London. He also writes a monthly column, “Beneath the Radar,” for the Nation magazine and is the Alfred Knobler Fellow for the Nation Institute. His new book is Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books).

 

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