History

How Martin Luther King Jr. Improvised His ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Participants in the March on Washington gathered at the National Mall, viewed from the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963/Photo courtesy of Knopf Publishing Group

Editor's Note:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W.E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The author of numerous books, including the widely acclaimed memoir Colored People, Henry is an influential cultural critic, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and is the recipient of many honors, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the National Humanities Medal.

Dr. King began working in earnest on his speech the night before the March on Washington with a small group of advisers in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. The resulting draft was, as Taylor Branch notes, “a mixture of truncated oratory and fresh composition” that was “politically sound but far from historic.” [1]

When Dr. King took the stage the following day, the August heat was rapidly approaching unbearable, and the cavalcade of speeches, whatever their individual merits, was beginning to weary the audience. Still, the crowd anxiously anticipated the march’s climax. A. Philip Randolph intro­duced him as “the moral leader of our nation … Dr. Martin Luther King, J-R.” King approached the podium keenly aware that he was addressing not only the massive crowd gathered before him at the Lincoln Memorial but also the millions more watching live on TV.

The power of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech came in part from the fact that he “framed this vision entirely within the hallowed symbols of Amer­icanism: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and the ‘American Dream,’” as Adam Fair­clough has pointed out. [2] But when he started talking that day, he had not planned to discuss any dreams.

After alluding to Lincoln and saying that “the Negro still is not free,” King turned to the novel metaphor of the “promissory note” – that the Declara­tion of Independence was a check of sorts written to all Americans of all races as a guarantee of their rights, but that so far, for “the Negro people,” it had been “a bad check … which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

In the following sections of the speech, King responded to critics who cautioned moderation (“gradualism,” he named it) and those who called for armed militancy and racial separation. King stressed the need for action in “the fierce urgency of now” and argued for a nonviolent, biracial approach, reminding those demanding more radical action that “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny … We cannot walk alone.” King then encouraged Americans to continue fighting for right over might, as “we are not satis­fied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Soon after delivering that now-famous line, King looked down at his pre­pared speech and reached this mouthful of a sentence: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” He balked. Instead of reading it, he transformed his speech into a sermon.

He instructed the audience to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Ala­bama … South Carolina … Georgia … Louisiana … to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King speechwriter Clarence Jones saw King “push the text of his pre­pared remarks to one side” and realized what was happening. “I leaned over and said to the person next to me, ‘These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.’” [3] Onstage that day the singer Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier, reportedly kept saying to King, as he spoke, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” [4] King never said if he heard her or not, but Julian Bond recently told me it would have been impossible not to, given their proximity on the stage and the resonance of Jackson’s powerful voice.

In any case, her dream was fulfilled when King continued, “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed.” In clas­sic black preacher oratorical fashion, King turned to repetition, outlining the specifics of his dream, which emphasized interracial cooperation across the South. Poignantly, he exclaimed, “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!”

Soon the speech reached its dramatic climax. King quoted the first verse of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (the song Marian Anderson had opened with at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939; she was also there to sing the national anthem in 1963) and commanded, “Let freedom ring” in “New Hamp­shire … New York … Pennsylvania … Colorado,” and “California,” but also “from Stone Mountain of Georgia … from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee … from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountain side. Let freedom ring.”

He saved his most dramatic exhortations for last: “When we allow free­dom to ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Prot­estants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

Three months later King explained his decision to go off script: “I started out reading the speech … just all of a sudden – the audience response was wonderful that day – and all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used – I’d used it many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ – and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.” [5]

The long-term importance of the march and the speech cannot be over­stated. Look no further than the explosion of marches on Washington that have occurred in the years since. That such a wide variety of people and organizations have riffed upon the March on Washington by attempting to restage it is a testament to what King, Randolph, Rustin, Lewis, and the other leaders of the march achieved more than fifty years ago. It’s such a testament that the singular focus on King’s climactic speech (really, a few sound bites) has fostered an overly simple portrait of King himself. As the historian Vincent Harding argues, “Brother Martin spent a fair amount of time in jail, but his worst imprisonment may be how his own nation has frozen him in that moment in 1963.” [6]

The freeze began taking hold after King’s assassination in 1968, the historian Drew Hansen explains. Anxious that inner-city neighborhoods might burn, “politicians and the media [wanted] to influence the per­ceived direction of black protest” away from militancy and back toward the “good” civil rights movement of peaceful protest and visions of “all of God’s children … able” (and wanting) “to join hands and sing.” [7]

The emphasis on the “dream” part of the speech especially obscures King’s later agenda. As Julian Bond once cautioned, most commemora­tions “focus almost entirely on Martin Luther King the dreamer, and not on Martin King the antiwar activist, not on Martin King the challenger of the economic order, not on Martin King the opponent of apartheid, not on the complete Martin Luther King.” [8]

The speech also is too easily leveraged by political actors who surely would not have agreed with King’s message during the 1960s. For exam­ple, many opponents of affirmative action believe that the speech supports their argument; as Ronald Reagan said in 1986, “We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to suc­ceed, and so we oppose the use of quotas. We want a color-blind society. A society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [9] The estate of Dr. King even threatened to sue a group of supporters of Proposition 209, a 1996 California anti-affirmative action bill, when it used King’s speech in its advertisements.

Notes:

  1. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 875.
  2. Adam Fairclough, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), p. 91.
  3. Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 112.
  4. Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 882.
  5. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Lead­ership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986), p. 283.
  6. Vincent Harding, “The Road to Redemption,” Other Side, January–February 2003.
  7. Drew D. Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (New York: Ecco, 2003).
  8. Quoted in Robin Toner, “Saving a Dissenter from His Legend,” New York Times, Janu­ary 19, 1986.
  9. “Reagan Quotes King Speech in Opposing Minority Quotas,” New York Times, Janu­ary 18, 1986

From 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro © 2017 by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Excerpted with permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group