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Remembering 'I Have a Dream’

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. His speechwriter Clarence B. Jones recalls the improvised moments of the iconic speech.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
August 28, 2013

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that helped advance civil rights in America. His speechwriter Clarence B. Jones recalled “the lightning in a bottle” of that day back in 2011 at the Brennan Center while discussing his book, “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.”

Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

I wasn’t in touch with him in the morning. I had just learned somebody called me and said Dr. King’s speech is mimeographed and put into a press kit. Harry Belafonte had asked me to coordinate a so-called celebrity delegation coming to the March on Washington shared by, of all people, Charlton Heston. So I had to go meet Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando and all these people. Leading them, and they all say, “This is a great day isn’t it.” Mr. Charlton and I are thinking yes it is.

It’s not until I am up on the platform — Dr. King, it was an extraordinary moment. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a beautiful day, just fantastic. The speaker before Dr. King’s speech is introduced is read by Joachim Prinz, who was then president of the American Jewish Congress. He gave a very profound, but short speech. He said, in effect: “I remember being a rabbi in Hitler’s Germany and remember many tragic things of those times. What I remember is that hate, intolerance, and bigotry are not the worst things. The worst thing that I remember was the silence of the good people.” Very powerful.

And after that Randolph gets up and he says ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, the moment that we’ve all been waiting for. Now I want to introduce to you the indisputable moral leader of our country the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The place has more than 250,000 people. It was like they all set off firecrackers at the same time. Unbelievable. Martin gets up, speaks from the text on American history. As I’m listening, for the first time I recognize that for about the first seven to eight paragraphs of the opening speech are the words that I gave him to consider using. He used them, didn’t change a word, comma, period, spoke them exactly as I wrote them. Then he added his own additional language for about four or five paragraphs.

He’s reading this text. He’s reading this at the podium. He’s over here and [this woman] turns to him and shouts to him, interrupts him. “Tell them about the dream Martin. Tell them about the dream.” And he pauses. I look at him and take the text. He moves it off to the side and grabs the podium. I turn to the person standing next to me. This is all happening in real time. And I say: “Look at these people. They don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.” Because I can tell by Dr. King’s body language, that where he stood implacably reading the text, that his body language has changed to this preacher mode.

That’s when he started speaking, I have a dream. That was totally spontaneous, totally extemporaneous. If you listen to the speech, I say that Martin King had a much more prophetic confidence in America than America had in itself. Because the speech where he uses I have a dream is all in the future tense. “I believe that one day…. I believe that one day my poor children will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. I believe that one day the great, great grandsons of slaves and the great, great grandsons of slave owners will sit down at the table of brotherhood….” All in the future tense — paragraphs that you read, all in the future tense. The most extraordinary thing I had ever seen. They only way I can tell you is to describe it to you and what I knew. I can remember what I knew.

What is most significant about Martin Luther’s appearance at the March on Washington is this: We caught lightning in a bottle, because the right man spoke the right words to the right people at the right time. No part of this formula should be undervalued. Though one or two components could gel together, the culmination is not likely to be replicated ever again.

(Photo: Robert Adelman/National Portrait Gallery)