Like most public figures, Martin Luther King Jr. had very little time to work on his speeches. Clarence B. Jones, who was King's personal attorney, also helped write many of his speeches. In a book published recently, Jones gives the blow-by-blow account of how King's most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, came into existence.
The logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us. Early in the summer, Martin asked some trusted colleagues at the SCLC for their thoughts on his address, and during his weeks in New York, we had discussions about it. But it wasn't until mid-August that Martin had Stanley [Levinson] and I work up a draft. And though I had that material with me when I arrived at the Willard Hotel in Washington for a meeting on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, Martin still didn't know what he was going to say.
We met in the lobby rather than in a suite, under the assumption that the lobby would be harder to wiretap. Tables, chairs and plants acted as a cordon of privacy. It was with this odd start, hiding in plain sight, that 12 hours before the March on Washington began, Martin gathered with a small group of advisers to hammer out the themes of his speech.
He had reacted well to the material Stanley and I had prepared, but he also knew that many of the march's supporters and organizers - labor unions, religious groups, community organizations and academic leaders - needed to be heard as well. So that evening he had a cross-section of advisers present to fill any blind spots. Cleveland Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Lawrence Reddick and I joined him, along with Wyatt Walker and Bayard Rustin, who were in and out of our deliberations.
As we ate sandwiches, our suggestions tumbled out. Everyone, it seemed, had a different take. Cleve, Lawrence and I saw the speech as an opportunity to stake an ideological and political marker in the debate over civil rights and segregation. Others were more inclined for Martin to deliver a sort of church sermon, steeped in parables and Bible quotes. Some, however, worried that biblical language would obfuscate the real message - reform of the legal system. And still others wanted Martin to direct his remarks to the students, black and white, who would be marching that day.
Read more about the making of the speech at the Washington Post.