MLK’s Story Behind “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, like much of MLK’s legacy, is selectively remembered. It attacked the material roots of American racism, just as his anti–Vietnam War speech five years later excoriated American militarism.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The night before the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr asked his aides for advice about the speech he was due to make the next day. “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’” Wyatt Tee Walker told him. “It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.”

King had indeed employed the refrain several times before. It had featured in an address just a week earlier at a National Insurance Association fundraiser in Chicago and a few months before that at a huge rally in Detroit. Like most of his speeches, both had been well received. But neither had been regarded as particularly momentous.

While King, by this time, was a national political figure, relatively few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full speech. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the March for Jobs and Freedom (the biggest event of its kind in the country’s history), this would be his introduction to the nation. He wanted a speech to fit the occasion.

Sitting in the lobby of Washington’s Willard Hotel, King called on his team for ideas. Walker’s was one contribution of many. “Suggestions just tumbled out,” recalled Clarence Jones, who wrote the final draft. “‘I think you should . . .’ ‘Why don’t we . . .’ ‘Martin, as I mentioned before . . .’” After a few hours King thanked them for their input. “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord,” he said. “I will see you all tomorrow.” When one of his advisers went to his room later that night, he had crossed out some words three or four times. King went to sleep at around 4 a.m.

Young people sing at the March on Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

A few hours later the march’s organizer, Bayard Rustin, wandered onto the Mall with some of his assistants to find security personnel and journalists outnumbering demonstrators. That morning a television news reporter in DC announced: “Not many people seem to be showing up. It doesn’t look as if it’s going to be very much.” The movement had high hopes for a large turnout and had originally set a goal of 100,000. From the reservations on coaches and trains alone, they guessed they should be at least close to that figure. But when the actual morning came, that did little to calm their nerves.

Reporters badgered Rustin about the ramifications for both the event and the movement if the crowd turned out to be smaller than anticipated. Rustin, forever theatrical, took a round pocket watch from his trousers and some paper from his jacket. Examining first the paper and then the watch, he turned to the reporters and said: “Everything is right on schedule.” The piece of paper was blank.

As the morning progressed, the organizers’ apprehension subsided as the capital was transformed by protesters flooding in from all over the country. The first official Freedom Train arrived at Washington’s Union Station from Pittsburgh at 8:02, records Charles Euchner in Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington. Soon trains were pulling in every five to ten minutes. At the height of the flow, ten thousand people came through the station in twenty minutes while one hundred buses an hour rolled through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. By 10 a.m. the magnitude of the march was beyond doubt.

“We were surrounded by a moving sea of humanity,” wrote John Lewis, a young civil rights leader who addressed the crowd that day, as the throng began to move. “Tens of thousands of people just pouring out of Union Station, filling Constitution Avenue from curb to curb. It was truly awesome, the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in my life. I remember thinking, There goes America.”

Singers, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Josh White, Odetta, and Peter, Paul, and Mary kept the crowds entertained. Marchers who brought their own placards made a wide variety of demands and statements. “Horses have their own television shows. Dogs have their own television shows. Why Can’t Negroes have their own shows?” read one. “No US Dough to help Jim Crow Grow,” announced another. Yet another read: “Our Body in Motion, Our Life on the Line, We Demand Freedom of Mind.”

“Let Us Not Wallow in the Valley of Despair”

Rustin had limited the speakers that day to just five minutes each and threatened to come on with a crook and haul them from the podium when their time was up. But they all overran, and given the heat — 87 degrees at noon — and the humidity, the mood began to wane.

King was the last speaker. By the time he reached the podium, many in the crowd had started to leave. “I tell students today, ‘There were no Jumbotrons back then,’” Rachelle Horowitz, who as a young activist had organized transport to the march, told me. “All people could see was a speck and they listened to it.”

Not all those who remained could hear him properly, but those who could stood rapt. “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,” said King as though he were wrapping up. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.”

Then he grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. “When he was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer,” Jones told me. “But from the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher.” Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: “Those people don’t know it but they’re about to go to church.”

A smattering of applause filled a pause more pregnant than most.

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

“Aw shit,” said Wyatt Walker, who was on the Mall. “He’s using the dream.”

Why Do We Remember It?

Martin Luther King delivered many speeches (at least 350 in 1963 alone). Many speeches have been delivered on civil rights and, indeed, were delivered at the March on Washington. So what was it that made this particular speech historical? And what makes it great? Why do we remember it? How do we remember it? What is it about it that we like to remember? And what about it have we chosen to forget?

When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was not particularly popular, and the speech had not gained the legendary status it has today. Both he and the address could have gone the way of many great leaders and addresses and, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, been “amputated” from the body of history.

Paradoxically, while the “dream” segment is the most memorable element, it was never included in King’s prepared text. Would the speech have been remembered in the same way, or even at all, if King had not taken that spontaneous turn?

Martin Luther King Jr stands at the head of the crowd during the March on Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was not the only compelling refrain in the address. Near the beginning he talks about the United States’ reneging on its promises to African Americans: “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . a promissory note . . . for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” written by the drafters of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

He goes on to argue that the country has paid with a bad check and effectively defaulted on its promise. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” he says. “So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Then, right at the end, he shifts to a riff borrowed from the nineteenth-century patriotic song “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” in particular the last line of its first verse: “Let freedom ring.” Starting with the more liberal North, he takes the crowd on an evocative tour of the United States, calling for freedom to ring from “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire . . . to the curvaceous slopes of California.” Finally, he takes a dark turn toward the South, including “every hill and molehill in Mississippi,” a state he has earlier described as “sweltering with the heat of injustice.”

While neither passage is quite as long as the “I have a dream” section, both are substantial and evocative. “Even the way it’s always referred to tells you everything you need to know about what people want to remember,” Jack O’Dell, one of King’s former aides, told me. “Nobody ever calls it the ‘bad check’ speech.”

The Other King

Most who knew King and his work believe he gave at least one speech that deserved as much or perhaps more historical attention than that delivered to the March on Washington. “I think his speech four years later at the Riverside Church in New York, in which he condemned the war in Vietnam and talked about the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, was by far the best speech of his life in terms of sheer tone and substance,” argues Lewis.

But to bemoan the absence of King’s other great speeches, or other sections of the Washington speech, from public consciousness would be to mistake collective memory as something other than selective and contingent. To honor King as an antiwar crusader, America would have had to come to terms with its militaristic impulses. Similarly, to recall King’s Washington speech through the metaphor of “the bad check” would demand an engagement with both the material legacy of racism and the material remedy of antiracism — a challenge the country has hardly begun to address.

Martin Luther King Jr and Mathew Ahmann in Washington, DC, for the march. (Wikimedia Commons)

Venerating his speech at the March on Washington through the dream sequence, however, upholds a positive (albeit metaphorical) diagnosis for an apparently chronic ailment — American racism. As such, it is a rare thing in almost any culture or nation — an optimistic oration about race that acknowledges the desperate circumstances that made it necessary while still projecting hope, patriotism, humanism, and militancy.

These strengths in the breadth of its appeal are also its flaws in terms of depth. It is in no small part appreciated so widely because the interpretations of what King was saying vary so widely. In 2010, on the forty-seventh anniversary of the speech, media personality and Tea Party favorite Glenn Beck held the “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, telling a crowd of around ninety thousand that “the man who stood down on those stairs . . . gave his life for everyone’s right to have a dream.” Almost a year later black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain opened his speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference with the words “I have a dream.”

Their embrace of the speech, particularly when using elements out of context to challenge affirmative action and civil rights legislation, has made some black intellectuals and activists wary. “The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” King’s longtime friend Vincent Harding told me. “People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work.”

“Not an End, but a Beginning”

In the speech King claims: “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” In terms of mass, popular, nonracial activism against Jim Crow, it would turn out to be the beginning of the end — a pivotal, seminal milestone in the push for social justice.

Decades later, it is clear that in eliminating legal segregation — not racism but formal, codified discrimination — the civil rights movement delivered the last moral victory in America for which there is still a consensus.

While the struggle to defeat segregation was bitter and divisive, nobody today is seriously campaigning for its return or openly mourning its demise. The speech’s appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic, and public articulation of that victory.