Did MLK Improvise in the ‘Dream’ Speech?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: What led to it and how some famous lines nearly weren't spoken.

Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the audience at the March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the audience at the March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 45: What laid the groundwork for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous address at the March on Washington, and what are common misperceptions about its intent? 

Five Score and 50 Years Ago …

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued at the midpoint of the American Civil War, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a moment that marked the spiritual summit of the civil rights movement. In place and time, they are joined at the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, the nation’s shrine to the president who signed the proclamation declaring the slaves of the Confederate states free and the King who, 100 later, spoke to the disappointments and dreams of their descendants. Today, the words of both men — authors of arguably the two greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address and the “I Have a Dream” speech (pdf) — are etched in stone and in memory at the Lincoln and King Memorials in Washington.

No one understood the poetry of their parallel moments better than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who, speaking in front of Daniel Chester French’s iconic seated Lincoln statue, began his speech, “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation … But 100 hundred years later the Negro still is not free.” In this way, Dr. King framed Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and made freedom — “at last” — the ideal by which we measure progress in our country.

So effective was King in tying the memory of Lincoln to the cause of civil rights that most of us now see the Lincoln Memorial as the obvious site, the holiest of holy places, where history and racial progress meet. So, it was — it had to be — the perfect backdrop for the ultimate barrier breaker, Barack Obama, to stand on the eve of his inauguration in 2009. Yet, as we shall see, there was nothing inevitable about the choice of the Lincoln Memorial as the logical place for racial protests throughout the early 20th century, or as the staging ground for Dr. King’s most memorable speech.

Last week, we honored Bayard Rustin, the architect of the march; today, we examine the moment that remains most closely associated with it. But first, it’s important that we all understand a bit of the complicated background about the setting …

1922: A Dedication or an Opening?

The NAACP was founded in Springfield, Ill., Feb. 12, 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Yet, at the opening of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington May 30, 1922, security guards tried to “Jim Crow” black guests into a separate section from whites, despite the presence of a black orator onstage, the president of Tuskegee Institute, Robert Russa Moton, who, in addition to serving on numerous national boards, published an annual list of blacks lynched in the United States. (Sources for this last fact include the Afro-American newspaper from June 2, 1922, and Moton’s New York Times obituary from June 1, 1940.) 

The title of Moton’s speech, “The Negro’s Debt to Lincoln,” might have been the other way around (given the role of black soldiers in the Civil War), but Moton agreed to tone down his remarks to placate the Memorial Commission, as Adam Fairclough writes in his article “Civil Rights and the Lincoln Memorial.”  Even then, Moton managed to slip in his view of Lincoln’s ambivalence about emancipation: “The claim of greatness for Abraham Lincoln lies in this, that amid doubt and distrust, against the counsel of chosen advisers, in the hour of the nation’s utter peril, he put his trust in God and spoke the word that gave freedom to a race.”

No mainstream newspaper covered the attempt to segregate black guests at the dedication or that 21 guests apparently stormed out. (I checked ProQuest for these facts after reading other valuable historical accounts by Scott Sandage and Christopher Thomas.) They did cover President Warren G. Harding’s keynote address, in which he sanitized the memorial as a symbol of a restored Union by telling the estimated 75,000 gathered, “Halting human slavery as [Lincoln] did, he doubtless believed in its ultimate abolition through the developing conscience of the American people, but he would have been the last man in the Republic to resort to arms to effect its abolition.”