The Singer Who Inspired Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

In his autobiography, King explained that he wrote his speech at the Willard Hotel in Washington the night before the MOW, which was held on August 28, 1963. Prior to going up to his room, he had assembled his aides and asked them for suggestions for the speech. In the past, he had used the dream metaphor. Just two months earlier in June, at a speech delivered at Cobo Hall in Detroit, he said: “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.” The other metaphor he frequently used as the “bad check’, i.e, that the country wrote blacks a bad check, promising liberty and equality, but failing to honor it. Since speakers at the MOW were told they only had five minutes to speak, King didn’t think he had time to use both metaphors. [Later he was told that he could take whatever time he needed.] So he listened to his aides and said: “My brothers, I understand. I appreciate all the suggestions. Now let me go and counsel with the Lord.”

King spent the evening writing the speech in longhand, editing as he wrote, trying to find the right rhythm of words and phrases. Finally, he completed the speech by 4:00 am and handed the speech to an aid so that it could be typed up and delivered to the press. In the speech, King referenced the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. But no where in that manuscript were the words “I have a dream.” 

King was the last speaker of the day. He spoke after Mahalia Jackson sang and then a speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz from the American Jewish Congress. He stepped up to the podium, carrying the manuscript, and read from it. As he reached the conclusion of the speech, he realized that the sentences he had written did not flow. He was supposed to read “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction” and instead improvised a sentence that employed anaphora: “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.” And this it was exactly at this moment, that Mahalia Jackson changed the course of one of the most famous speeches in history. Sitting near Kind, she yelled out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” When he heard that, King instantly turned aside from the manuscript and followed his intuition; and he began: “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…”

King’s memorable 17-minute speech was powerful, soaring, and emotional. It brough men and women to tears according to eyewitnesses. Half a century later, the speech continues to resonate and inspire; moreover it is considered a rhetorical masterpiece. Political speech analyst, Richard Greene writes: “The speech is perfect in every way. The use of language, the emotional build-up, the penetrating message and the flawless delivery are, plain and simple, perfection.” Today, in a world inundated by tweets, a speech of this calibre is amazingly rare (had it occurred today, thousands would be reducing this remarkable oration to four simple words “I have a dream”) — and it towers above most others because it was delivered with so much conviction and passion. Through the use of repetition (anaphora), rhythm, diction, contrasting metaphors, biblical and historical references, and strong visual images — 70 in all — King crafted a perfect and impassioned speech about racial injustice and the hope for a world of true equality. Greene concludes, “To this day, the emotional impact of this speech reverberates to those who heard it then as well as those who first hear it now. Like the Gettysburg Address, it is a speech with lasting impact.”

So the next time you hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, you can thank Mahalia Jackson for her remark that altered the course of the speech — and of history. And may her act inspire you: when you see that someone needs some encouragement, don’t be afraid to speak out.

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Read related posts: Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King and the Suicide Letter
The Gettysburg Address

The Two Most Important Days of Your Life

For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/opinion/mahalia-jackson-and-kings-rhetorical-improvisation.html


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