Martin Luther King is the only non-president to have a national holiday celebrated in his honor. It’s well deserved. During the 13 years he led the American Civil Rights Movement, there was more progress toward racial equality in America than in the previous 350 years. Dr. King is regarded as America’s foremost advocate of nonviolence. Emulating his role model, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King led a nonviolent movement to achieve legal equality for African-Americans in the United States. He led similar campaigns against poverty and international conflict. He stayed faithful to the principle that men and women everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal members of the human family.
While others were advocating violence, King used words and nonviolent resistance to achieve his goals. Words change our perspective and move us to action. Dr. King was an inspiring writer and orator. Recently “I Have a Dream” was named the greatest speech of the 20th century. But it all could have turned out differently. The words Dr. King spoke were not the speech he wrote.
It was 1963. Although King was a national political figure, relatively few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. He was asked by President Kennedy to speak at The March on Washington, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history. The three main television networks were providing live coverage and King knew he had been given a unique opportunity to deliver his message to a global audience.
For many years, he had preached about “The Negro and the American Dream,” describing the gap between the dream and reality. So the “I have a dream” refrain was very familiar to his followers. King began to craft his speech the evening before the event. He asked a trusted advisor for suggestions and heard:
“Don't use the line 'I have a dream'. It's trite; it's a cliché. You've used it too many times already.”
King finished writing the draft of his speech at midnight. At about 4:00 a.m. he gave the finished text to his aides to print and distribute. Then he went to sleep. "I have a dream" was not in the script.
The day of the March on Washington was a hot 87 degrees. King was the 16th presenter in a long program of singers and speakers. Gospel singer and friend, Mahalia Jackson was the 14th to come on stage. She lifted the wilting energy of the audience with the Gospel song, “I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned.” Next, Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress spoke. He recalled his time as a Rabbi in Berlin under Hitler. His message was a reminder that we must not be silent in the face of hate.
King was next. He moved to the microphone and spoke clearly and decisively from his prepared text. It was a good speech, but as he approached his final words, he knew he was falling short of his intention. He wasn’t captivating his audience. From behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Martin, Tell 'em about the dream.” She was moved by the dream sermon when she heard him deliver it in Detroit. But King continued to follow his script. Again Jackson shouted: "Tell 'em about the dream.” This time King listened and pushed away the prepared text. There was a pause as he took a deep breath and looked out at the gathering of 300,000 people. Then, for the last nine minutes of his speech, he improvised:
“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 one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.
I have a dream today.”
The right words at the right time work magic. Finally Martin Luther King felt his words resonate with the crowd.
That was more than 50 years ago and the dream is still alive. Let’s stay faithful to the principles that men and women everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal members of the human family. Let’s continue to embrace nonviolence. There’s more work to be done. Let’s make the dream our reality.
Sources: The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream, by Gary Younge, The Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, The 1999 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University