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The Story Behind 'I Have a Dream'

The Story Behind 'I Have a Dream'

The night before the March on Washington, on 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King asked his aides for advice about the next day's speech. "Don't use the lines about 'I have a dream', his adviser Wyatt Walker told him. "It's trite, it's cliche. 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 fundraiser in Chicago, and a few months before that at a huge rally in Detroit. As with most of his speeches, both had been well received, but neither had been regarded as momentous.

This speech had to be different. While King was by now a national political figure, relatively few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his oratorical introduction to the nation.

After a wide range of conflicting suggestions from his staff, King left the lobby at the Willard hotel in DC to put the final touches to a speech he hoped would be received, in his words, "like the Gettysburg address". "I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord," he told them. "I will see you all tomorrow." 

King started slowly, and stuck close to his prepared text. "I thought it was a good speech," recalled John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of the movement, who had addressed the march earlier that day. "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." 

King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration. "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana," he said. Then, behind him, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Jackson had a particularly intimate emotional relationship with King, who when he felt down would call her for some "gospel musical therapy".

"She was his favorite gospel singer, and he would ask her to sing The Old Rugged Cross or Jesus Met The Woman At The Well down the phone," Jones explains. Jackson had seen him deliver the dream refrain in Detroit in June and clearly it had moved her.

"Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," King said. Jackson shouted again: "Tell 'em about the dream."

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends." Then King grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. "When he was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer," Jones says. "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."


From “Martin Luther King: The Story Behind His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech” by Gary Younge for The Guardian; Photo by Bob Adelman/Mangum


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