WASHINGTON – If not for two spontaneous, subtle, impeccably timed acts, the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, may not be known as the signature moment of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom five decades later.
In fact, the words “I Have a Dream” may have never been spoken.
Setting the stage for history
Among King’s inner circle were two people he spoke with virtually every day: his attorney Clarence B. Jones, and New York businessman Stanley Levinson. In early July, when it was clear the march would happen, Jones and Levinson met with King regularly and were tasked with drafting a framework for the speech.
“We felt that Martin had an obligation to provide leadership, offering a vision that we were involved in action not activity; a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges we faced and a road map of how we could best meet those challenges,” Jones, who also served as King’s draft speechwriter, wrote in his book, “Behind the Dream: the Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.”
The night before the march, in a cordoned-off area of the Willard Hotel lobby, a final meeting was planned to go over the final details of King’s speech.
According to Jones, along with he and King, the other attendees at the meeting were Cleveland Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Lawrence Reddick and Bayard Rustin.
After a vigorous debate, in which Jones took notes, he went to his hotel room and turned his notes into words King could recite. A short time later, he delivered his draft to King. As was customary in their relationship of speech-writer and speech-giver, King took the draft to tweak it and make his own. Jones didn’t see the final draft.
As King made his way through the first several paragraphs of the speech, Jones realized King had not changed a word he had written. But, Jones is quick to highlight the contributors of the process, and not his own handwork with a pen and paper.
“What I was writing was not my original writing,” Jones says. “It was merely a summary of what we had discussed before. I had simply put it into textual form in case he wanted to use that to reference in putting his speech together.”
The question of when King would speak during the march was also a thorny one.
“That process was really as a result of taming egos,” says Jones.
After a series of meetings the week leading up to the march, it was decided King would appear in the middle of the program.
Jones wasn’t having it. In the middle of one planning meeting, without King, he made his case for King to not only speak last, but to also speak the longest.
“I said you run the risk…that after he speaks a lot of the people at the march will get up and leave,” Jones says he told the group.
His plea worked.
“A. Phillip Randolph agreed with me, and Ted Brown, and Bayard (Rustin), and so forth,” Jones says. “And, so it was agreed that (King) would be the last speaker.”
And, if needed, King would be given the most time for his speech.
By interrupting a single meeting, Jones had set the stage for history.
A preacher emerges
By 1963 Mahalia Jackson was already a legend in Gospel music. In 1950, she became the first Gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She sang at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961. And, before King took the stage to speak at the march, Jackson belted out the Negro spirituals “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.”
Jackson was also King’s favorite singer.
“When Martin would get low…he would track Mahalia down wherever she was and call her on the phone,” Jones writes in “Behind the Dream.”
Jackson had King’s trust.
She was also on the platform, sitting in the area of celebrities and dignitaries behind King as he read from his prepared text:
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.
King paused for 10 seconds, as the crowd cheered him on. During that pause, the trajectory of the speech, and its place in history, transformed.
Jones says he was about 15 yards behind King, when he heard someone from the stage yell out to King.