Martin Luther King: How the dream speech wasn’t planned

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It was one of the most famous speeches ever made and led to two major pieces of Civil Rights legislation in the USA.

Yet, in issue 1277 of the Big Issue, author Philip Collins tells how Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” on August 28th 1963 in The Mall, Washington DC, wasn’t planned as it happened.

Dr King had been speaking about his “dream” on several occasions around the country, prior to the big event when 250,000 piled into The Mall to watch a succession of speakers and singers, for whom Dr King provided the finale.

Philip Collins tells us:

When Dr King’s advisers gathered to help him write the speech they were all adamant on one thing – on no account was he to do the dream speech.

Instead, the speech had working titles such as “Normalcy, Never again” and “A cancelled check”. Indeed, Dr King explored the check (cheque) theme in the first few minutes of his speech, without exactly setting the audience alight:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Then as the audience became rather bored after long journies and a very hot day, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, on stage behind Martin Luther King, whispered to him:

Tell ‘m about the dream, Martin.

So he went off on his dream riff, causing one of his team to mutter:

Aww shit, he’s doing the dream.

But the dream sequence fired up the audience and made history.

You can read Philip Collins’ article in issue 1277 of Big Issue. The article trails his new book “When They Go Low We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them“.

This post is another of our contributions for Black History Month.

Finally, here is that “Dream” speech in full:

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