I Have a Dream: Why Martin Luther King’s historic speech was almost never delivered
It’s one of the most famous speeches ever given: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. It was a catalyst for confronting and changing America’s racial prejudice. But on that day, those famous words — “I have a dream” — were very nearly not spoken.
Civil-rights leaders fretted about the event from its inception until they awoke on August 28, 1963, to see 250,000 people peacefully gathered.
King unquestionably would be the headliner, but the idea came from A. Philip Randolph, who organized the first predominantly African-American labor union in 1924. He planned a march on Washington in 1941 to highlight the inequalities of African Americans. Although the march never happened, Randolph held on to the idea.
Twenty-two years later, Randolph believed the time was right for a march on Washington again. Desegregation was coming to America—but at a stubbornly slow pace.
- In 1954, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared unconstitutional state laws separating black and white students.
- In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger. Parks and the resulting bus boycott spearheaded by King became important symbols.
- In 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, asked to be served coffee at a Woolworth counter. When they were refused service, they remained seated until the store closed that night. Each day after, the number grew: First twenty, then sixty, then three-hundred people showed up. After that, sit-ins were replicated across North Carolina before spreading to other Southern states.
The March on Washington would commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and culminate on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
King was the next-to-last speaker and the crowd grew listless as Washington’s notorious humidity took its toll.
However, there also was an air of expectation. What would Dr. King say? His advisers recommended against referring to “dreams” because, “It’s trite and cliché, and you’ve used it too many times already.”
Eleven minutes into his sixteen-minute speech, King paused for dramatic effect. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” To his aides’ chagrin, Martin Luther King, Jr. set aside the prepared text and spoke from his heart.
“I have 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.’
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
The following year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and King became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of thirty-five.
Food for thought
- What great idea didn’t work out? What would happen if you revived it?
- Preparation is vital. How will your personal conviction shine through?
- What belief requires your extraordinary effort to conquer obstacles and achieve unprecedented progress? How much sacrifice are you willing to endure?
This is an excerpt from the book, How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices by Greg Bustin.
Other articles by Greg Bustin
How leaders decide: Three lessons to learn from one of U.S. history’s bloodiest days
5 leadership lessons from FDR that inspire reinvention during times of change