JOPLIN, Mo. —
A half-century ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Standing on the steps of the memorial to the man who had ended slavery a century before, King addressed a crowd of over 200,000 who had marched on Washington to call for civil and economic rights that had been too long ignored.
You know the moment, you know the history, you know the “content of character” phrase, but did you know that the now immortal “dream” theme almost never happened?
King was reading his prepared remarks that would close out the event when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, also on the platform, called out to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
It was at that moment a midweek march became a clarion call for the ages.
In the PBS documentary “The March,” Clarence Jones, co-writer of King’s prepared speech, recalls telling a fellow attendee at the time: “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”
And oh, what a church it was.
In a little more than 600 extemporaneous words, a previously little-known Southern Baptist preacher galvanized a nation about the injustices and racism that for far too long had been ignored by far too many.
As millions of Americans gathered in front of their television sets that evening for their nightly news, many of them were seeing and hearing King for the first time. And just as television had propelled John F. Kennedy into the White House three years earlier, so too did it provide King the platform needed to draw national attention to the reality behind his dream.
Whether fate makes the man or man makes his fate is a debate without an answer. If not for Jackson’s call-out and King’s rise to it, it is likely that the events this week commemorating the speech would be much more subdued, if they were being held at all.
Without the “dream” would there even be a reality to commemorate? Does anyone remember the speakers before Lincoln at Gettysburg? Does anyone doubt that without “Four score and seven years ago” that cemetery dedication would be but just another footnote of history?
What makes the dream part of King’s speech so memorable is not the words, nor even the truths behind them, but where they came from.
His prepared remarks were fine as speeches go, but it was not until he went into his heart, his soul that his words went from plain “remarks” to a river of emotion that flowed through an entire nation then and still inspires today.
King’s dream was not born in a speechwriter’s head but in the brutality witnessed as a civil rights activist in the Old South. It rode on the bus to Montgomery, sat at the lunch counter in Greensboro and mourned with Medgar Evers’ widow in Jackson.
While many today co-opt his message for personal gain and publicity, not one of them is worthy of having his or her name in the same sentence with Dr. King.
King’s dream was not about himself but the future.
A future 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 in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
We’re not there yet, but we’re a lot closer now than we were then.
Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin.