Each year on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Kr. Day, we hear part of a great speech – perhaps one of the greatest speeches ever given – “I Have Dream.” Sometimes I get frustrated that Dr. King’s legacy gets reduced to one speech (and only the last few minutes of that one), when his work was much more far reaching and complex, and when so much of the work he gave his life to remains unfinished. Those issues aside, it is a remarkable speech, made all the more so by the fact that it very nearly never got made.
To begin with, the Great March on Washington of 1963 almost didn’t happen. Nobody had ever tried a demonstration on anything close to that scale, and most people thought it couldn’t be done. The only way the march could work is if all six leading civil rights groups joined together, and they agreed on very little. Several leaders viewed the march’s organizer, Bayard Rustin, with deep suspicion, because he had been a conscientious objector, a socialist, and was known to be gay. Dr. Martin Luther King and others insisted that only Bayard Rustin could do this job, so it was agreed that while Rustin would do all the work, others would take on the official titles of leadership. Leaders of the younger, more activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worried that the March would be no more than a way of blowing off steam for the African American community, unless it involved some kind of civil disobedience. The NAACP insisted they would not participate if any civil disobedience were involved. The groups argued with one another about the texts and the tone of the speeches and several threatened to pull support. While President Kennedy publicly praised the March and its goals, privately he worried that so many African Americans coming to Washington to protest would lead to rioting, and he asked the leaders to cancel the event. When they refused, Washington DC declared a “state of emergency,” closing all of the liquor stores, mobilizing every police officer on the force, and deputizing thousands more, in preparation for the descent of one hundred thousand African American protestors on the city.
More than double that number gathered at the foot of the Washington Monument the morning of August 28, while Dr. King, Whitney Young and other leaders met with members of Congress. At 11:30, somebody in the crowd started singing a freedom song. Soon others joined in and all of a sudden the people were moving, out onto Constitution and Independence Avenues, walking hand in hand toward the Lincoln Memorial. Bayard Rustin, looking down from the steps of the Capitol, shouted, “My God, they’re going! We’re supposed to be leading them!” So it was that Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph and all the rest of them ran after the people, eventually stepping into the middle of the march and stopping it so that reporters could take the iconic pictures.
The afternoon was a long series of carefully negotiated speeches. Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel musician, sang “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.” And then Dr. King stood up to speak. He must have been exhausted, but he read well from his carefully prepared text. When he reached the end, he paused, and Mahalia Jackson, remembering the words she had heard Dr. King speak at so many churches and rallies across the south, shouted from her seat, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”
Dr. King looked up from his text, written as it was in the context of all the contentiousness that had gone into this march, and he looked out at the people, so eager for freedom they had not waited for his leadership to move, and he said, “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
The video below includes the entire speech. It’s worth hearing.