Today when you hear mention of the name “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” it will be easy to recall the sound, captured on black and white film, of his powerful, mellifluous voice in August 1963 urging freedom to ring on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. His “I Have a Dream” speech cemented his place as one of the greatest orators of all time.
Interestingly, this speech that touched America’s soul evolved right up until the time King delivered it on that warm day in August. As Seattle lawyer Drew D. Hansen described in his 2003 book, “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation,” King started working on the speech four days before delivering it. A few aides offered themes. King worked on the speech and made revisions through Tuesday, when he traveled to Washington. But when he checked into his hotel, he didn’t have a final draft and wasn’t satisfied with what he had.
Hansen wrote, “A side-by-side comparison of the speech he prepared with the speech he actually gave illustrates how King improvised minor alterations throughout his prepared text before finally deciding to abandon it completely.”
Surprisingly, King’s prepared draft didn’t include its most famous repetitive phrase, “I have a dream” Hansen noted. That now-famous phrase was just one of many repetitive, rhetorical Biblical verses, past sermons, stories and quotes from others that King the pastor had used successfully in his hundreds of past sermons and speeches.
At the end of the prepared text, King was expected to say:
“And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. Let us go back and work with all the strength we can muster to get strong civil rights legislation in this session of Congress. Let us go down from this place to ascent other peaks of purpose. Let us descend from this mountaintop to climb other hills of hope.”
But he delivered something else – something quite remarkable – when he outlined his dream to the 250,000 people in the Mall in Washington. He quoted from “My County ’tis of Thee.” And he shouted for freedom to ring. Instead of asking people to return to their communities as members of “the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction,” a phrase that is easy to forget, listen to the ring of power in the words he roared:
“Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
“I say to you today, my friends, so 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. 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 today!”
* * *
In both the prepared and delivered versions, King ended with, as he said, words from the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
But what a difference in how he got to that ending.
In the prepared text, he had just one sentence that preceded the quote — “Let us work and march and love and stand tall together until that day has come when we can join hands and sing …”
Compare that to the magnitude of vision and repetitive power of his oratory in an excerpt of the 12 sentences he delivered on the fly to whip the crowd into a frenzy:
“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day …
“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. … Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and ever city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual …”
Today, more than 48 years after King’s challenging and uplifting speech, let us ponder how each of us can work to make freedom shine stronger every day.