Editing, Improvisation Sparked Martin Luther King Jr.’s Most Memorable Words

February 2021
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“I have a dream,” the best-known line of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech from the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, almost wasn’t spoken. 

As Biography.com writes, King’s remarks during the March on Washington would help create the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During Black History Month, we reflect on his life and powerful message. 

King wanted his speech to have the same impact on the nation as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address did a century earlier. His adviser, Clarence B. Jones, who had drafted a summary of King’s ideas that would become the first seven paragraphs of the speech, convinced him to cut the “dream” idea, which King had used in previous sermons.

As an estimated 250,000 people stood listening in 87-degree heat, King declared that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in the United States, “the Negro still is not free.” But his speech lacked the punch he had expected.

Standing nearby, singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” Improvising, he said: “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 my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

As Biography.com notes: “King looked back on all the long hours preparing and realized that nothing resonated more than reading a crowd and trusting his instinct.”

Return to Current Issue The Art of Storytelling | February 2021
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