Civil Rights

Lawyer says Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. departed from script to ad-lib iconic 'Dream' speech

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

Fifty years after a massive civil rights march in Washington, D.C., culminated in an electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., tens of thousands of people converged on the nation’s capital Wednesday to ponder what has, and has not, been accomplished since then.

Although progress clearly has been made, many share a perception that King’s dream of a world in which character counts more than the color of one’s skin is not yet entirely a reality.

“Equal justice under law is, in the words of Dr. King, a promissory note to every American. Yet a half-century after the March on Washington, we know that justice is not always blind. We know that the right to vote is in jeopardy. We know that, as lawyers, we must break down discriminatory barriers and encourage African-Americans and underrepresented groups to join our great profession,” says ABA President James R. Silkenat in a written statement.

Among those who spoke to the crowd in the nation’s capital today was president Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. She cited voting rights setbacks and efforts to intimidate blacks into not voting, USA Today reports.

“There are no white sheets,” she said, “but there are judges in black robes in the U.S. Supreme Court who struck down Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates in many states to pass more voter I.D. laws to block people of color and young people from voting, with the goal of ensuring we never see another black man elected President—or woman—of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, it turns out, a key portion of the iconic ‘Dream’ speech, which became an inspirational foundation of the nation’s ongoing struggle for racial equality for the past five decades, wasn’t part of the script. A lawyer for King tells Reuters that the Baptist preacher put his prepared text aside and focused on his now-famous words at the tail end of his speech, only when famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out a suggestion from the stands.

King’s attorney, confidant and speechwriter, Clarence Jones, was sitting about 50 feet from him, following a copy of the prepared speech as the civil rights leader read it, as planned, before a crowd of some 250,000 people assembled at the Lincoln Memorial. Although King had spoken before about his dream of equality, it had never resonated with his audience, and he wasn’t planning to emphasize that language on Aug. 28, 1963, recounts Jones. Then Jackson called out to King in her powerful voice: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin! Tell ‘em about the dream!”

King looked up, nodded at Jackson, put his script to one side, grabbed the lectern and started to speak extemporaneously before an estimated crowd of 250,000, giving his spoken words a cadence and a rhythm they hadn’t had before, says Jones. “Everything thereafter was spontaneous. That was the ‘I have a dream’ speech.”

The Huffington Post has a transcript of the speech and a videotape is provided on YouTube, as the Slatest points out.

The Lookout page of ABC News includes a blog about today’s activities and links to historic material, and CNN, the New York Times (reg. req.) and Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) have stories.

See also:

ABA Journal (2006): “New Fight for Voting Rights” (2010): “Martin Luther King Jr.‘s Dream Is Not Yet a Reality”

Deseret News: “In our opinion: Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘dream’ 50 years later”

Rolling Stone (1977): “Remembering Dr. King”

Rolling Stone (1988): “The Rolling Stone Interview: Martin Luther King III”“

San Francisco Chronicle: “Memories of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech”

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.