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A masterpiece improvised: 'I have a dream'

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic address 50 years ago, nowhere in the prepared text were the words 'I have a dream'

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Martin Luther King Jr. was a central figure in the civil-rights movement.

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The Associated Press archives Martin Luther King Jr. was a central figure in the civil-rights movement.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the lectern at the March on Washington 50 years ago to deliver his I Have a Dream speech, the text in his hand didn't contain the words "I have a dream."


That refrain, and the part of the address it punctuated and propelled, was improvised on the spot. Having written a good speech -- a working title was Normalcy -- Never Again -- King instead gave one of the greatest of the 20th century.

There are other things most of us don't know about this storied speech. The march wasn't King's first use of the "dream" refrain. He came to rue the phrase, and by the time he died, the speech had faded from public memory.

King spoke on Aug. 28, 1963, at the biggest, most important civil-rights demonstration in American history. It was the heart of the civil-rights movement -- eight years after the anti-segregation Montgomery bus boycott; three years after the lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville and Greensboro, N.C.; two years after the first Freedom Rides on interstate buses through the South; and three months after police in Birmingham, Ala., horrified the nation by using attack dogs and fire hoses against women and children protesting segregated public facilities.

At least 250,000 people had jammed the National Mall to demand "jobs and freedom," including passage of a civil-rights bill. But all many people know or remember is King, preaching a gospel of hope from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But only King's murder rescued the speech from public oblivion.

Drew Hansen, author of The Dream, a book on the speech, said that between 1963 and 1968 it was "largely forgotten" -- first, because of the crush of events, and later, as King's earlier optimism began to seem ill-founded and he became more controversial, especially for his opposition to the war.

"In '65 or '66, most people would not have said it was the most powerful speech ever," said William P. Jones, author of a new history, The March on Washington.

King's assassination on April 4, 1968, led the nation to rediscover the speech. It heard a statement of national purpose on a par with the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence -- "one of those things that we look to," said Hansen, "when we want to know what America means."

On the day of the march, more than two-thirds of African-Americans lacked the right to vote, attend integrated schools or use the same public facilities as whites. But King's movement finally had made civil rights the nation's top domestic political issue. The summer would see 1,122 civil-rights demonstrations around the nation and about 20,000 arrests, almost all in the South.

On the Wednesday morning of the march, Washington was tense. Outside the city, thousands of combat troops were ready to move in. Many businesses were closed. The crowd gathered slowly at the Washington Monument and marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where the movement's leaders would address them. King, not yet 35, went last.

As millions watched on television -- all three networks had cut away from regular programming -- King began reading from typed text. He invoked the words of the president whose likeness loomed in the background: "Five score years ago..." King said, the Emancipation Proclamation "came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night" of the slaves' captivity.

But 100 years later, he said, "the Negro still is not free." The promises of Lincoln's proclamation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were like a "bad cheque." Now, he said, we're here to cash it.

After 10 minutes, he was more than halfway through a recitation that had been well received but was, as King biographer Taylor Branch would write, "far from historic" and in places "clubfooted."

Then, King looked up. He put aside his text, for he had seen -- or just as likely sensed -- an opportunity.

"I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Having raised his eyes, he now had to raise his voice to be heard over the growing applause. He continued to profess his dream, repeating the refrain seven more times, moving from justice and equality to something deeper -- a human bond transcending race.

"I have a dream that some day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

It was as if only once he was up there, gazing out, could King see a future many that day could not: "... in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!"

He ended suddenly, returning to the speech that had been lying unread on the lectern for the last line: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty -- we are free at last!"

For a moment the audience was stunned. Silence. Then, a rocking ovation.

Why did King decide to insert the "dream" section? He never really explained, and no one pressed him. When he spoke with Donald Smith, a graduate student, later that year, he didn't seem sure himself:

"I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point, and just all of a sudden I decided -- the audience response was wonderful that day, you know -- and all of a sudden this thing came to me that I'd used many times before, that thing about 'I have a dream.' I just felt I wanted to use it. I don't know why. I hadn't thought about it before that speech."

Hansen, author of The Dream, thinks King sensed the last section of his written speech did not match the emotions of the occasion and resorted to a riff he had used successfully for more than year, albeit one more commonly heard from a Baptist pulpit than on national TV.

After the march ended peacefully -- not a single marcher was arrested -- John F. Kennedy met the leaders of the march at the White House.

When he walked into the Cabinet Room, the president looked at King and grinned. "I have a dream," he said.

King's speech was a hit, not just among blacks. Covered live by all three networks, it offered many whites their first exposure to the black sermonic tradition.

The speech soon began to recede, however. So much was happening so fast -- the Birmingham church bombing the following month that killed four girls, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And King's image changed. He began an unpopular and unsuccessful attempt to desegregate urban ghettos in the North. He came out against the Vietnam war, alienating allies in the White House and organized labour. Race riots from Los Angeles to Newark seemed to suggest King's non-violent tactics were pass©.

King inverted his own refrain. In 1965 he told an audience in Chicago, "I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare." The lament became one of his set pieces.

But within days of his death, King's speech at the March on Washington became his signature, endlessly reprinted and replayed. It clearly had been the high point of his career, and a dream -- because it's immortal -- is all the more powerful in the face of death.


-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 D5

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