Today marks the 50th anniversary since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what most scholars agree is the greatest speech of the twentieth century. And if you’re like me, you were probably first exposed to it as an elementary school student.
In fact, I remember first seeing the late, great civil rights leader on a poster hanging inside my first grade classroom. It wasn’t until later, however, when I first read the speech in its entirety, that I began to understand its significance. After all, the power of the written and spoken word has always had the capacity to move our nation forward. To take one example from history, this is precisely why when reflecting upon the meaning of the Gettysburg Address during his eulogy for Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner asserted that, “The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more [important] than battles." Indeed.
Well, perhaps it cannot be said that King’s imperishable words that day were more important than the March on Washington or the larger civil rights struggle, but it certainly defined it. And incredibly, the most discussed refrain from the speech -- that very catchphrase we come to associate with Dr. King’s life and legacy -- was not even included in his prepared remarks (via Forbes):
In the seventh paragraph, something extraordinary happened. King paused. In that brief silence, Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and good friend of King’s, shouted “tell ‘em about the ‘dream.’” Few people heard her, with the exception of Jones, Ted Kennedy, and, of course, King. Here’s what happened next. Jones saw King “push the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He shifted gears in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version he’d prepared…he’d given himself over to the spirit of the moment.” Jones leaned over to the person standing next to him and said, “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”
King improvised much of the second half of the speech, including the “I have a dream” refrain. Improvise means “to deliver without prior preparation.” It does not mean that King completely made up the words on the spot. In fact King delivered the now familiar refrain, or at least a version of it, two months earlier at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Remarkably, if you read the text of the Detroit event, you’ll see that he did not recite the same sentences word for word. His mesmerizing words and sentence structure were truly delivered extemporaneously. It’s an example of rhetorical dexterity at its finest. Now watch the video again, beginning at 12 minutes, 30 seconds. King rarely looks down in the second half of the speech. It’s because he’s not reading; he’s riffing, like a jazz musician. “So much for providing advance material for The March reporters,” wrote Jones. “The effect was nothing short of soul-stirring.”
I did not know this until today. Incredible. If anything, this adds to the moral urgency of the March on Washington -- “1963 is not an end, but a beginning,” King said -- and the great civil right leader’s impassioned and unwavering commitment to racial justice.
Of course, Dr. King would be assassinated five years later in Memphis, Tennessee, but not before giving his life to a cause that might have struggled to get off the ground without him.
Here are the words we best remember him by:
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