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)

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For this reason, at least one black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, on June 10, 1922, refused to accept that the Lincoln Memorial had been dedicated in 1922. “With song, prayer, bold and truthful speech,” its editor prophetically declared, “later on let us dedicate that temple thus far only opened.”

The Rededication

African Americans, beginning with members of the AME Zion Church, started gathering at the Lincoln Memorial as early as 1926, as a Washington Post account on August 5, 1926, indicates. And on April 9, 1939 (Easter Sunday and the 74th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox), the black contralto Marian Anderson fulfilled the Chicago Defender’s prophecy by giving a performance (mp3) of patriotic hymns, opera selections and Negro spirituals before a crowd of 100,000.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only 10 when Marian Anderson gave her concert. At 15, he cited her in his prize-winning speech at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School: “When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.” Young Martin was right — the night of her concert, Marian Anderson stayed at the home of former Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot (for a terrific account of her life and impact, see Raymond Arsenault’s book, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America).

Sixteen years later, by then-Dr. King would lead a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., that would set him on a path toward immortality and a destiny not dissimilar to the one occupied by the slain president who would be seated behind him (in stone) before a crowd of 200,000-plus marchers gathered in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

Writing the Speech (Minus ‘The Dream’)

As Taylor Branch notes in his definitive narrative, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Dr. King began working in earnest on his speech with a small group of advisers in the lobby of the Willard Hotel the night before the march, and the resulting draft was “a mixture of truncated oratory and fresh composition” that was “politically sound but far from historic.” (To learn more, see King adviser Clarence B. Jones’ account in the Washington Post).

When King took the stage the following day, the audience had no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes wrangling we read about last week in the column about Rustin or that the march’s D.C. coordinator, Walter Fauntroy (future D.C. congressman), had to ring up the Justice Department to send in the Army Signal Corps to repair the expensive sound system sabotaged the day before. Imagine if they hadn’t come! (For more, see Charles Euchner’s recent book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington.)

What the audience did know was that the August heat was rapidly approaching unbearable and the cavalcade of speeches, whatever their individual merits, was beginning to weary them. Still, the crowd anxiously anticipated the march’s climax, the appearance of Dr. King, whom A. Philip Randolph introduced as “the moral leader of our nation … Dr. Martin Luther King, J-R.” King approached the podium keenly aware that he was addressing not only the massive crowd gathered before him at the Lincoln Memorial, but also the millions more watching live on TV, including President Kennedy and his brother, Robert.

Working Off the Script

Adam Fairclough has pointed out that part of the power of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech came from the fact that he “framed this vision entirely within the hallowed symbols of Americanism: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and the ‘American Dream.’ ” But when he started talking that day, he had not planned to discuss any dreams.