Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The serendipity of "I have a dream"

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was unusual among great American speeches in that its most famous words — “I have a dream” — were improvised.

King had certainly thought about using the “dream” refrain in Washington. He had been fine-tuning it earlier that year. ...

But King thought he wouldn’t have time to use the “dream” language at the March. ...

When King arrived at the Willard Hotel in Washington the night before the march, he still didn’t have a complete draft. ... King finished at about 4 in the morning and handed the manuscript to his aides so it could be typed up and distributed to the press. The speech did not include the words “I have a dream.”

King awoke the next morning to the disappointing news that the crowds at the March were smaller than expected. “About 25,000,” the television reporters were saying, as King left the hotel. Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer, was standing at the Washington Monument, where reporters pressed him about why so few people had shown up. Rustin looked intently at a yellow legal pad in his hand. “Gentlemen,” he said, “everything is going exactly according to plan.” One of Rustin’s aides looked over his shoulder and saw that the pad Rustin was looking at was blank.

But at Union Station, buses and trains were coming in regularly, swelling crowds that some onlookers compared to those that had gathered at the end of World War II. ...

King had the last speaking slot — not just because he was a hard act to follow, but because some other speakers thought they might get better coverage if they spoke earlier in the day. ...

King read from his prepared text for most of his speech ...

As King neared the end, he came to a sentence that wasn’t quite right. He had planned to introduce his conclusion with a call to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” He skipped that, read a few more lines, and then improvised: “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.”

Nearby, off to one side, [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson shouted: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King looked out over the crowd. As he later explained in an interview, “all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used — I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.” He said, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” And he was off, delivering some of the most beloved lines in American history, a speech that he never intended to give and that some of the other civil rights leaders believed no one but the marchers would ever remember.
--Drew Hansen, NYT, on the greatest American freestyle ever