The Story Behind the 'I Have a Dream' Speech
    • Martin Luther King, Jr at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his “I Have a Dream,” speech during the August 28, 1963, march on Washington.

The night before the March on Washington, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King asked his aides for advice about the next day's speech. "Don't use the lines about 'I have a dream'," his adviser Wyatt Walker told him. "It's trite, it's cliche. 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 fundraiser in Chicago, and a few months before that at a huge rally in Detroit. As with most of his speeches, both had been well received, but neither had been regarded as momentous.

This speech had to be different. While King was by now a national political figure, relatively few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. With all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his oratorical introduction to the nation.

After a wide range of conflicting suggestions from his staff, King left the lobby at the Willard hotel in DC to put the final touches to a speech he hoped would be received, in his words, "like the Gettysburg address." "I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord," he told them. "I will see you all tomorrow."

A few floors below King's suite, Walker made himself available. King would call down and tell him what he wanted to say; Walker would write something he hoped worked, then head up the stairs to present it to King.

"When it came to my speech drafts," wrote Clarence Jones, who had already penned the first draft, "[King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home." King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King's suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The "I have a dream" section was not in it.

A few hours after King went to sleep, the march's organizer, Bayard Rustin, wandered on to the Washington Mall, where the demonstration would take place later that day, with some of his assistants, to find security personnel and journalists outnumbering demonstrators. Political marches in Washington are now commonplace, but in 1963 attempting to stage a march of this size in that place was unprecedented. The movement had high hopes for a large turnout and 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 morning came, that expectation 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.

The first official Freedom Train arrived at Washington's Union Station from Pittsburgh at 8:02 am, records Charles Euchner in Nobody Turn Me Around. Within a couple of hours, thousands were pouring through the stations every five minutes, while almost two buses a minute rolled into DC from across the country. About 250,000 people showed up that day. The Washington Mall was awash with Hollywood celebrities, including Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Burt Lancaster, James Garner and Harry Belafonte. Marlon Brando wandered around brandishing an electric cattle prod, a symbol of police brutality. Josephine Baker made it over from France. Paul Newman mingled with the crowd.

It was a hectic morning for King, paying a courtesy visit with other march leaders to politicians at the Capitol, but he still found time to fiddle with the speech. When he eventually walked to the podium, the typed final version was once more full of crossings out and scribbles.

Rustin had limited the speakers 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 humidity, the crowd's mood began to wane. Weary from a night's travel, many were anxious to make good time on the journey back and had already left. King was sixteenth on an official program that included the national anthem, the invocation, a prayer, a tribute to women, two sets of songs and nine other speakers. Only the benediction and the pledge came after. Portions of the crowd had moved off to seek respite from the heat under the trees on the Mall while others dipped their feet in the reflecting pool. Those most eager for a view of the podium braved the sun under the shade of their umbrellas.

"There was… an air of subtle depression, of wistful apathy which existed in many," wrote Norman Mailer. "One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the seventh inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3. The home team is ahead, but the tension is broken: one's concern is no longer noble."

But if they were exhausted, they were no less excited. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had lifted spirits with "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, followed, recalling his time as a rabbi in Berlin under Hitler: "A great people who had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder," he said. "America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent."

King was next. The area around the mic was crowded with speakers, dignitaries and their entourages. Wearing a black suit, black tie and white shirt, King edged through the melee towards the podium.

"I tell students today, 'There were no jumbotrons [large screen TVs] back then,' " says Rachelle Horowitz, the young activist who organized transport to the march. "All people could see was a speck. And they listened to it."

King started slowly, and stuck close to his prepared text. "I thought it was a good speech," recalled John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of the movement, who had addressed the march earlier that day. "But it was not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense that he was falling short. He hadn't locked into that power he so often found."

King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration. "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana," he said. Then, behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Jackson had a particularly intimate emotional relationship with King, who when he felt down would call her for some "gospel musical therapy."

"She was his favorite gospel singer, and he would ask her to sing 'The Old Rugged Cross' or 'Jesus Met The Woman At The Well' down the phone," Jones explains. Jackson had seen him deliver the dream refrain in Detroit in June and clearly it had moved her.

"Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," King said. Jackson shouted again: "Tell 'em about the dream." "Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends." Then King grabbed the podium and set his prepared text to his left. "When he was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer," Jones says. "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," Walker said. "He's using the dream."

For all King's careful preparation, the part of the speech that went on to enter the history books was added extemporaneously while he was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking in full flight to the crowd. "I know that on the eve of his speech it was not in his mind to revisit the dream," Jones insists.

It is open to debate just how spontaneous the insertion of the "I have a dream" section was (Euchner says a guest in the adjacent hotel room to King heard him rehearsing the segment the night before), but the two things we know for sure are that it was not in the prepared text, and it wasn't invented on the spot. King had been using the refrain for well over a year. Talking some months later of his decision to include the passage, King said, "I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point. The audience response was wonderful that day… And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I'd used many times before… 'I have a dream.' And I just felt that I wanted to use it here… I used it, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether. I didn't come back to it."

Tags: civil rights, i have a dream, march on washington, martin luther king

    • Gary Younge
    • Alfred Knobler fellow Gary Younge is an award-winning New York-based columnist for The Guardian and The Nation and an acclaimed author. In 2009 he won the British James Cameron award for his coverage of the 2008 presidential election. His most recent book, on politics and identity, is Who...

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