Before the age of the internet, and the widespread adoption of social media — like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter — people took a stand on issues by literally standing together, side by side, and listening to and being inspired by great leaders and visionaries.
August 28, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s enduring speech titled “I Have a Dream…” delivered before an estimated crowd of 250,000 people who gathered at the Lincoln memorial in Washington, D.C. The speech was part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized by by civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and John Lewis. King was the last of ten speakers to address the crowd that momentous day. Louis Martin, former advisor to President John F. Kennedy recalls: “As I sat on the stone steps looking out on the vast throng I was fully conscious that this was one of the great moments in the history of blacks in America. Never had so many black American come together from all sections of the country to strike a blow for first-class citizenship.”
King’s speech is perhaps the most recognized speech right after Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. In fact, King’s speech shares four interesting similarities to Lincoln’s ageless speech. First, Lincoln’s speech was not heard by the crowd because Lincoln spoke softly, almost muttering the words. The crowds did not realize what he said until they were published in newspapers the following day. Similarly, a large portion of the crowd in Washington did not hear King’s soaring speech because the sound system was sabotaged before the event and there was not enough time for engineers to completely repair it. Of course, King, the son of a pastor and a pastor himself, was a brilliant writer and orator; Lincoln, however, was a brilliant writer but not as gifted as an orator. Second, King’s speech, like Lincoln’s, anchors his remarks in time, even to the point of using similar language, as well as evoking the specific image of President Lincoln (Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago…”; King: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Third, both men wrote a draft of their speeches (Lincoln at the home of a private citizen, King at a hotel) the night before the event. And finally, both speeches are examples of quintessential speeches — towering above all the great speeches of history — for their impeccable diction, rhetoric, symbolism, and cadence. And just as important, both speeches are timely and timeless,. Gary Younge, who researched King’s speech in great detail, elaborates: A great speech is both timely and timeless. First and foremost it must touch and move its immediate audience. It needs to encapsulate the mood of the moment, reflect, and amplify it. But it must simultaneously reach over the heads of the assembled toward posterity… [King’s] speech [qualifies] on both counts.”
Sadly, Lincoln’s reading copy was not saved (what survive are five handwritten copies with minor variations completed after the dedication event). King’s typewritten reading notes are owned by a private citizen — George Raveling, a retired basketball coach. In 1963, Raveling was a basketball player at Villanova. Because of his height, the event organizers asked him to be King’s bodyguard as he delivered his speech. After King completed his speech, Raveling had the foresight and good sense to politely ask for the reading copy — and King graciously gifted that famous speech to him.
In his autobiography, King describes his delivery of this important speech: “I started out reading the speech and read it down to a point. The audience’s response was wonderful that day, and all of a sudden this thing came to me. I had used [the phrase “I have a dream”] many times before, and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why. [emphasis added] I hadn’t thought about it before the speech. I used the phrase, at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether and I didn’t come back to it. (emphasis added)” Thanks to an eyewitness account, as reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, we now have some insight as to why King deviated from his speech — even though he didn’t quite remember. Clarence Jones, a speech writer that collaborated with King on an early draft of the speech described how a single outburst of encouragement changed the course of one of the most famous speeches in history. Legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was a close friend of King who had been invited to sing two songs at the event. She was standing near King as he delivered the speech and about midway through his speech she yelled: “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” At that point, King departed from his manuscript and began speaking extemporaneously. In various interviews, Jones has elaborated on that amazing moment: “When Mahalia said that, it was almost like a mandate to respond. I could see his body language change from the rear. Where he had been reading, like giving a lecture, but then going into his Baptist preacher mode. I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day. It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body. It was the same body, the same voice; but the voice had something I had never heard before. It was so powerful, it was spellbinding.”
Half a century later, millions of people around the world have read and heard Martin Luther King’s eloquent and moving speech. Jones is absolutely right — King’s delivery is spellbinding; his words ring out as powerfully today as they did back then: “I say to you today, my friends, so 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 and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. 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. 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.”
For further reading: The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream by Gary Younge, Haymarket Books (2013)
Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington by Kitty Kelley, Thomas Dunne Books (2013)
Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene, Prentice Hall (2002)
The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows by Gabor Boritt , Simon & Schuster (2006).
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through his Words by Ronald White, Random House (2005).
Long Remembered: Lincoln and his Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address by Douglas Wilson, Levenger Press (2011).