On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously delivers his “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
But did you know that he improvised the most famous portion of the speech, on the spot?
King had been stewing over what to say. The program that day was a long one, and the well-known orator had been given only 5 minutes to speak. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his aides all had different ideas about what he should emphasize during those 5 minutes. As for King, he wanted to think about it alone.
He left his aides behind in the hotel lobby. “My brothers, I understand,” he told them. “I appreciate all the suggestions. Now let me go and counsel with the Lord.” He wrote his speech, on his own. The word “dream” did not appear in the speech that he provided to the press the next morning.
King had to have been generally disappointed that morning. Television reporters were saying that only 25,000 people had appeared for the march.
Let’s just say that they had to revise those numbers as the day continued.
Buses and trains were pouring in from all over the country. By late morning, the grounds around the Washington Monument were packed. The crowd of 25,000 had swelled to something closer to 250,000.
Around 11:00 a.m. the marchers began to walk towards the Lincoln Monument.
The program was long, filling the whole afternoon. King had the last speaking slot, soon after a few songs by Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Did her presence influence what followed? Some people think so.
As King’s speech began, he was reading from his prepared text. Partway through, he changed direction. What caused him to push his notes aside? The matter has been the subject of some speculation.
King was supposed to conclude with a fairly formal statement urging the crowd to “go back to our communities….” But, instead, he improvised: “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.”
At that moment, Clarence Jones, an advisor to King, remembers “one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers.”
It was Mahalia Jackson. She apparently shouted to King: “Tell ‘em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ‘em about the ‘Dream!’” Some people remember a hesitation on King’s part, but it’s not clear if he heard Jackson or if he switched direction all on his own.
Jones watched King push his prepared text aside. Jones remembers turning to the person next to him and saying, “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
And so it began. King delivered the words that would go down in history as a clarion call for civil rights:
“I have a dream . . . 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. . . . [And when this happens] all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Clarence B. Jones & Stuart Connelly, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation (2011)
Drew Hansen, Mahalia Jackson, and King’s Improvisation (N.Y. Times, Aug. 27, 2013)
Emily Crockett, The woman who inspired Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech (Vox.com, Jan 16, 2017)
Martin Luther King, Transcript: “I have a dream.”
Rufus Burrow, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Theology of Resistance (1994)