Famed MLK speech almost didn’t include ‘I have a dream’
Clarence Jones was sitting 50 feet behind his boss, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the brilliant, sunny day in 1963 when King delivered the now-infamous ‘I have a Dream’ speech that would forever change the course of race relations in the United States.
Now, 50 years later, Jones recalls how the words “I have a dream” were not written in the text that King prepared and began to read that day. Instead, King improvised on the spot, reviving a phrase he has used previously with little impact, according to Jones, King’s lawyer, speechwriter and confidant.
“I have a dream,” King shouted to the crowd, his voice reverberating with emotion, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Delivered 50 years ago on Wednesday, King’s image of his dream for a better America still inspires the United States. The speech was delivered to more than 250,000 people who came to Washington, D.C., to march for civil rights at a time when it was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in many states, and just months after protesters in Alabama were set upon with police dogs and fire hoses.
King had spoken before about having a dream for his children, and for America, but the phrase had never really resonated with an audience and the idea was left out of the text for that day’s speech altogether, Jones said in an interview with Reuters near his home in Palo Alto. He also recounted the story in his most recent book, “Behind the Dream,” which was published in 2011.
King had prepared a text that started with several paragraphs of Jones’ writing. As King began to read it, Jones tracked the paragraphs as they went by. The first seven were as he had written them.
One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed U.S. slaves, “the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King intoned.
A Baptist preacher with a stirring and charismatic speaking style, King went on, reading parts of the text that he had added to the first few paragraphs by Jones.
Then came the change in script.
The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had earlier performed the song, “How I Got Over,” yelled from the stands. “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” she said, according to Jones. “Tell ‘em about the dream!”
‘Everything thereafter was spontaneous’
Jones said he could not see Jackson because she was sitting below him, but he heard her voice.
He also saw King, who had been reading from the text in front of him, look up. King nodded to where Jackson was sitting, Jones said, adding he saw King take hold of the pages of his speech and move them to one side.
“He moves the text of the speech to the left side of the lectern, grabs the lectern, looks out on those more than 250,000 people assembled and thereafter begins to speak completely spontaneously and extemporaneously,” Jones said.
“Everything thereafter was spontaneous,” he said. “That was the ‘I have a dream’ speech.”
From that moment on, King’s cadence changed as sentences and ideas built on one another to reach powerful crescendos.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King said.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
Jones, who is the author of two books about King, teaches at both Stanford University and the University of San Francisco. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 and he met King in 1960, remaining close to him until King’s assassination in 1968.
He said he believes a number of conditions that day helped make the moment historic: the beautiful weather; the presence of more than 250,000 people; a powerful speech that preceded King’s by Joachim Prinz, then president of the American Jewish Congress; the location at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial; and the centennial anniversary of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed black slaves in the United States.
Anger among black Americans was also at a tipping point, Jones said. Images of police dogs and fire hoses used against peaceful demonstrators, including children, at protests in Birmingham, Ala., enraged African-Americans and shocked many around the world.
“You can’t understand about the ‘I have a dream’ speech,” Jones said, “unless you pause and reflect about the historical circumstances that were taking place in the country at that time.”