Fifty years ago this week (Aug. 28) Martin Luther King, Jr. put a historic exclamation point on the Civil Rights movement’s “March on Washington” when he stood before the Lincoln Memorial and delivered to some 250,000 people, and millions watching on television, the most famous and important American speech since — well, since the Second Inaugural Address given by Lincoln himself. But unbeknownst to most people, King hadn’t intended to give that speech. “I Have a Dream” was basically an ad lib.
King did have a prepared speech that day, which was supposed to run seven minutes, and for a while he stuck to it, talking about “cashing checks” at the “bank of justice” and how America should not have “insufficient funds,” etc. Even helped by King’s preacher-trained voice, to many (including me) the metaphor seemed a stretch.
But finally King came to a passage (“And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.”) that he just couldn’t bring himself to recite, and as it happened, the great African-American singer, Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind King on the podium, whispered “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” She was referring to a sermon she had heard King deliver weeks earlier in which he had explored a broad outline of his “dream” theme.
Whether Jackson’s whispered plea influenced King or not, he suddenly said “what came to me.” What “came” to King began as follows: “I say to you today, my friends, 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.”
You know the rest. King gave the speech of his life, one that ran far longer than his allotted seven minutes, and no one minded. King turned a so-so speech into a brilliant sermon, his voice becoming ever deeper and more emotional, his cadence perfect, as he connected civil rights to the American Creed, tied calls for justice to the Bible, admonished bigotry while offering brotherhood, and finally ended with the universal hope that all people “will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
It ranks among the best American speeches ever given, and King essentially made much of it up. Indeed, it was almost as if a mystic convergence of unexplainable forces — Jackson’s whisper, King’s inspired decision to abandon the prepared text, the historic occasion, and (it’s possible) God’s hand — resulted in a speech the likes of which we will never hear again, but almost didn’t hear at all.