x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Martin Luther King's 'Dream' speech was off the cuff

It's the most memorable line from one of the greatest speeches delivered, yet the civil-rights leader, Martin Luther King, never planned to say "I have a dream" when he addressed the March on Washington 50 years ago.

WASHINGTON // It's the most memorable line from one of the greatest speeches delivered, yet the civil-rights leader, Martin Luther King, never planned to say "I have a dream" when he addressed the March on Washington 50 years ago.

King was the last speaker of the day when he took the lectern on August 28, 1963, and looked out over the unprecedented crowd of 250,000 that filled the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In the hands of the oratorically gifted Baptist preacher from Georgia was a text that he and his associates had painstakingly finalised the night before. The phrase "I have a dream" was not part of it.

"For all King's careful preparation, the part of the speech that went on to enter the history books was added extemporaneously while he was speaking in full flight to the crowd," wrote US-based columnist Gary Younge of Britain's Guardian newspaper in an excerpt from his new book The Speech.

King had used the "I have a dream" line before, including in a sermon in Detroit recorded by the Motown record company two months earlier.

But King's adviser, Wyatt Walker, counselled against its reuse, contending it was "trite" and "cliche" and basically unworthy of a nationally televised event.

King, introduced to the National Mall rally as "the moral leader of our nation", himself told the graduate student Donald Smith later that year that he had "just all of a sudden" decided to invoke the words about him having a dream.

He might have been swayed by the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who performed earlier in the day, when she shouted to him: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin."

King told Mr Smith: "I just felt I wanted to use it."

Mr Smith went on to write a dissertation as part of his doctorate about King's powerful use of persuasive speech. "I don't know why. I hadn't thought about it before that speech," he said.

Sixteen minutes long, the speech became even better known as King's virtual epitaph after he was shot and killed on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968 by a white gunman positioned just across the street.

But it wasn't just what King said that summer day in Washington, but who was listening and watching on live radio and television.

"For the first time, a mass white audience heard the undeniable justice of black demands," said Julian Bond, then chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), quoted in Smithsonian magazine in 2003.

King himself remembered the March on Washington as "that radiant August day".