How Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote His Momentous “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963)

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks as one of the most famous of Amer­i­can speech­es. As Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, says in his video above, it’s “arguably the most impor­tant and well-known speech of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” King’s pop­u­lar vision of a peace­ful, har­mo­nious, mul­tira­cial democ­ra­cy might explain why nine out of ten Amer­i­cans have a pos­i­tive atti­tude toward King now. That polling looks very dif­fer­ent by par­ty affil­i­a­tion. Even so, many more Amer­i­cans look fond­ly on King’s mem­o­ry than sup­port­ed (or now sup­port) the racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice for which he fought. The cur­rent use of King as a white­washed mar­tyr fig­ure, Michael Har­riot argues, obscures the real­i­ty of “a dream yet unful­filled,” as King once called the U.S.

Even after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win, only about 37% of Amer­i­cans approved of his mes­sage in 1966 Gallup polling, a num­ber that dropped even low­er when he came out against the Viet­nam war in 1967. Approval for MLK “only start­ed to shift after his assas­si­na­tion in 1968,” writes Senior Data Sci­en­tist Lin­ley Sanders at YouGov.  King’s “Dream” speech at the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al may be posthu­mous­ly remem­bered as his finest hour by those who weren’t there. For thou­sands of peo­ple who were, his address was also a fiery sum­ma­tion of the major themes up to that point in dozens of speech­es and ser­mons.

“Rid­dled with big dif­fi­cult terms and full of rhetor­i­cal devices that are inten­tion­al and prac­ticed,” Puschak says, the speech elo­quent­ly explained “why ful­ly 100 years after… the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion,” Black Amer­i­cans were still polit­i­cal­ly dis­en­fran­chised and eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged. It did so through a series of dense allu­sions to the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, the coun­try’s found­ing doc­u­ments, the song “My Coun­try ‘Tis of Thee,” and oth­er arti­facts of Amer­i­can nation­al iden­ti­ty, in an attempt to “frame civ­il rights in the larg­er Amer­i­can mythol­o­gy so that those who iden­ti­fy with that mythol­o­gy might incor­po­rate this strug­gle into that sto­ry.”

The Amer­i­can sto­ry has jus­ti­fied oppres­sion and fear of the same peo­ple fight­ing for full inte­gra­tion into the nation­al poli­ty dur­ing the Civ­il Rights move­ment, a prob­lem­at­ic irony of which King was hard­ly unaware. He also drew from tra­di­tions old­er than the U.S. found­ing — the human­ism of Shake­speare and the prophet­ic voic­es of the Old Tes­ta­ment, for exam­ple. These were indeed prac­ticed maneu­vers. (King very much lived down the C he once got in a pub­lic speak­ing class.) But the rous­ing refrains in his speech’s con­clu­sion — which gave the speech its title and spread its fame around the world — were ad-libbed.

“I start­ed out read­ing the speech, and I read it down to a point… the audi­ence response was won­der­ful that day” King lat­er remem­bered. “And all of a sud­den this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.’ ” The ref­er­ence did­n’t come out of nowhere, says Clarence Jones, who helped King write the speech’s text just hours before it was deliv­ered. Jones recalled that King’s favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jack­son called out for the then-famil­iar (to her) theme:

As he was read­ing from the text of his pre­pared remarks, there came a point when Mahalia Jack­son, who was sit­ting on the plat­form, said, “Tell them about the dream, Mar­tin! Tell them about the dream.”

Now I have often spec­u­lat­ed that she had heard him talk in oth­er places… and make ref­er­ence to the dream. On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express ref­er­ence to the dream.

When Mahalia shout­ed to him, I was stand­ing about 50 feet behind him… and I saw it hap­pen­ing in real time. He just took the text of his speech and moved it to the left side of the lectern. … And I said to some­body stand­ing next to me: “These peo­ple don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Before cel­e­brat­ing a redeemed inter­pre­ta­tion of the Amer­i­can dream in his extem­po­ra­ne­ous finale, King’s speech con­demned the nation’s real­i­ty as moral­ly cor­rupt and ille­git­i­mate. He urged restraint among his fol­low­ers through non­vi­o­lent “direct action,” but fore­saw worse to come before the coun­try could real­ize its poten­tial.

It would be fatal for the nation to over­look the urgency of the moment. This swel­ter­ing sum­mer of the Negro’s legit­i­mate dis­con­tent will not pass until there is an invig­o­rat­ing autumn of free­dom and equal­i­ty. 1963 is not an end, but a begin­ning. Those who hope that the Negro need­ed to blow off steam and will now be con­tent will have a rude awak­en­ing if the nation returns to busi­ness as usu­al.

“There will be nei­ther rest nor tran­quil­i­ty in Amer­i­ca until the Negro is grant­ed his cit­i­zen­ship rights,” King con­tin­ued. “The whirl­winds of revolt will con­tin­ue to shake the foun­da­tions of our nation until the bright day of jus­tice emerges.” Maybe it’s lit­tle won­der many white Amer­i­cans, hear­ing these remarks, turned away from King’s vision of racial jus­tice, which required reck­on­ing with “the unspeak­able hor­rors of police bru­tal­i­ty.” End­ing the “unearned suf­fer­ing” of Black Amer­i­cans, King knew, would come at too great a cost to unearned priv­i­lege. Indeed, the FBI heard King’s words as a direct threat to the coun­try’s his­toric pow­er struc­ture. After the “I Have Dream” speech, the Bureau seri­ous­ly inten­si­fied its pro­gram to sur­veil, dis­cred­it, and destroy him.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Pub­lic Speaking–Before Becom­ing a Straight‑A Stu­dent & a World Class Ora­tor

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Imag­in­ing the Mar­tin Luther King and Mal­colm X Debate That Nev­er Hap­pened

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.