Civil Rights

How Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" Was Composed


Via Andrew Hazlett's always-great Twitter feed comes this sory of how Martin Luther King, Jr. finished his spectacular "I Have a Dream Speech" in the wee hours of the day he delivered it on August 28, 1963. No, this was not your typical all-nighter, for sure. Here's how the scholars behind Stanford's online encyclopedia on King and "the global freedom struggle" explain it:

King continued to give versions of this speech throughout 1961 and 1962, then calling it "The American Dream." Two months before the March on Washington, King stood before a throng of 150,000 people at Cobo Hall in Detroit to expound upon making "the American Dream a reality" (King, A Call, 70). King repeatedly exclaimed, "I have a dream this afternoon" (King, A Call, 71). He articulated the words of the prophets Amos and Isaiah, declaring that "justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream," for "every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low" (King, A Call, 72). As he had done numerous times in the previous two years, King concluded his message imagining the day "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 with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (King, A Call,73).

As King and his advisors prepared his speech for the conclusion of the 1963 march, he solicited suggestions for the text. Clarence Jones offered a metaphor for the unfulfilled promise of constitutional rights for African Americans, which King incorporated into the final text: "America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned" (King, A Call, 82). Several other drafts and suggestions were posed. References to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation were sustained throughout the countless revisions. King recalled that he did not finish the complete text of the speech until 3:30 A.M. on the morning of August 28.

More here.

Here's video of the speech:

And here's a link to the great "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," which remains one of the great statements of American political discourse.

The Nation's Chris Hayes reminds us via his Twitter feed that King wrote an annual essay on civil rights for The Nation between 1961 and 1966. You can read them here.

Reason on King here.

And read Damon Root's essay about "a forgotten civil rights hero," T.R.M. Howard, who followed a very different path than King's but had a profound influence on civil rights discourse.

NEXT: A Birthright, and a Mess of Pottage

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  1. Glad to see a libertarian website celebrating a communist.

    MLK supported affirmative action. In other words, he wasn’t against discrimination, only discrimination against blacks.

    1. Have some respect. Find something nice to say. Obama got his last speech done in an all-nighter too. The parallels abound!

    2. Look, if you’re waiting for the Sunday Girls at reason to say anything about MLK you couldn’t read just as easily at The Nation, you’ll wait a long, long time.

      Try Paul Gottfried instead.

      1. To be fair, reason has to plaster something on their webspace to be edgy and different, just like the rest of the MSM. See how they are ignoring the Eric Fuller thing but they had story after story on Jared Lee Loughner? It is like getting “The Morning Joe” without a cable bill.

      2. StE,

        Thanks for the link and the reminder that this is also Robert E. Lee day. Time to polish the lawn jockey.

    3. Dude, this is enormously simple-minded. I don’t agree with affirmative action, but it’s not wild-eyed, after seeing the government stamp its foot on the throats of one group of people for two centuries, to expect the government to do something for that same group.

    4. There’s some question as to whether MLK supported Affirmative Action in the way it is practised today.

      But the, we’ll never know since he was killed a fewe years before AA became firmly entrenched.

      Always good to know that there’s always someone with the classy comment at Hit and Run.

  2. Did he spend donated money on prostitutes? The most sordid charges about MLK’s sex life, this one included, come from the FBI and can’t necessarily be trusted. But there’s no doubt about what one biographer calls King’s “compulsive sexual athleticism.” King’s attitude toward women was chauvinist and often exploitative. In his 1989 autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, King’s close friend and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy writes that on the night before he died, King gave a rousing speech, had dinner with a woman afterward and remained with her till 1 AM, then came back to his motel to spend the night with a second woman. In the early morning hours a third woman came looking for King and became angry when she found the bed in the room he shared with Abernathy unoccupied. When King reappeared, he argued with woman #3 and wound up knocking her across the bed.

    In his 1991 memoir, Breaking Barriers, journalist Carl Rowan writes that in 1964 congressman John Rooney told him that he and his congressional committee had heard J. Edgar Hoover play an audiotape of an apparent orgy held in King’s Washington hotel suite. Over the sounds of a couple having intercourse in the background, according to Rooney, King could be heard saying to a man identified as Abernathy, “Come on over here, you big black motherfucker, and let me suck your dick.” Horrors, King was gay! (Rowan thinks this was just ribald repartee.) In his account of the same episode, civil rights historian Taylor Branch attributes a couple more quotes to King: “I’m fucking for God!” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!” The FBI anonymously sent King (or, according to some accounts, King’s wife, Coretta) a tape of compromising material recorded in his hotel rooms. The tape was either accompanied or followed up by a note suggesting that King should commit suicide if he wished to avoid exposure.…..plagiarist

    1. Yet, you with merely your greased palm are infinitely less useful a human being than King.

    2. What purpose would the FBI have to silence MLK? Did they want to maintain the status quo or racial segregation, a policy that doesn’t serve the liberty of all Americans, or could it be a fabrication? I mean, these things didn’t apparently silence King, so…did they exist at all or did the FBI have a change of heart and decide to sit on the information?

      Maybe these things are true. If so, why not use them, if MLK was considered an enemy of the state? Or maybe you’re full of shit. Or maybe these things are true but it’s not relevant to his impact.

    3. I like how this link clearly refutes the assertion in your initial comment that King was a communist.

    4. You does RAH stand for redneck asshole?

    5. Wait – this is supposed to make me like him less? Now he’s TOTALLY my hero!

    6. Abernathy didn’t report any of the kind in his book. This is mostly fabrication:…..r_king.htm

  3. C’mon, Nick, King wanted to “free” Negroes by government fiat. He called for the intervention of the state. Because of him laws restricting property rights (“We resevre the right to refuse service.”) were enacted. Restricting freedom! Be a cosnistent right-wing fanatic asshole, or pull that copy of Atals shrugged out of your ass. You don’t dserve the honor of having it shoved up there.

    1. restricting property rights? u mean like the “right” for a restaurant to serve a burger w a side of e coli. or maybe u mean transferring school levy monies to for-profit charters WITHOUT local voter approval to move public monies outta the public school district?

      1. In Sardinia they eat maggot cheese.
        mmm maggot cheese

      2. idiot

      3. Shut up everybody. Maybe the trolls will just eat each other if we leave them to it.

        1. Every voice is sacred. Let blog anarchy bloom.

    2. Unlike plenty of other people, I don’t claim to have a window into King’s mind. However, I’m pretty sure that regardless of his other stated beliefs, the major goal of his movement was to get the government to enforce the rights and liberties granted by the Constitution. I think any libertarian would find that to be a noble goal, and he did well towards that end.

  4. “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

    Talk about your incendiary rhetoric!

  5. He was a man and was subject to his desires. No one can deny he was a inspiration to many people, and that his life and death continues to have consequence.

    1. Sounds like he was subject to a woman’s desires too.

  6. Wait a minute. How could King have a dream if he was awake all night writing the speech? I smell a rat.

    1. Perhaps he meant a “daydream”, and just didn’t spell that out?

    2. >>Wait a minute. How could King have a dream if he was awake all night writing the speech?

      Wait a minute. How could King write speeches at night if he’s up all night coinkin’ broads and blowing Ralph Abernathy?

  7. He was my inspiration.

        1. Do you realize you’re stupid?

              1. I wunt to play wit deh big kidz. Derr.

                1. ^ stalker who doesn’t’ get it.
                  Here’s a message from every woman you ever will meet- I’m just not into you AKA fuck off

                  1. I AM WOMAN. WE ARE ONE. WE ARE THE BORG.

  8. Great story Nick!

    1. Yeah, for the Nation or some other left-wing rag, but for Reason, the beacon of right-wing idiocy writ large. Fuck!

  9. First of all, MLK was, broadly speak, a democratic socialist, not a communist. Get it right. 🙂 On economic policy, he was probably no different than, say, a random left-wing European MP. That said, I don’t see how having the rights of Black people recognized is not a libertarian project. For that, we should all be thankful, as it makes everyone freer.

    1. todd – these libtards r too wrapped-up in their narratives against MLK to grasp that black civil rights stands apart fm any one person.

      1. Err, wouldn’t that mean the libtards can question MLK without necessarily questioning black civil rights?

      2. The irony of some fool using the word “libtard” immediately before misspelling “are”… ah, it stings so sweetly.

        1. ahh the hissy fit of a supposed grammarian…completely aside fm anything on-point of course.

      3. If you actually want to argue with us, please do. If you are just going to continue with the stupid nonsense, please fuck off.

        1. go back up the thread & read RAH’s “stupid nonsense”.

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  11. While it is true Dr. King stood for non-Libertarian causes, his fight against STATE-MANDATED bigotry and segregation that had existed for over a century far outweighs the negative. People want to make an issue out of his alleged adultery or call him a Communist, so what. Many baby-boomers I know who are staunch Libertarians today were once student radicals who dabbled in Marxist beliefs, not to mention screwed everything in sught.

  12. The John Fucking Birch Society would be turning over in its grave if it were dead. Shame on you libertoid right-wing assholes for embracing King. Shame!

    1. Why? Nothing in the John Birch Society’s mission statement has anything at all to do with race.

      There have been a number of black members of the JBS.

  13. Listen, Dr. King wrote an awesome speech and fought for something he deeply believed. He kicked ass, despite not being a libertarian!

    1. That is unless he WASN’T the author of the speech, which according to what we know about his doctoral thesis, is entirely possible.

  14. Also, I might actually like the man better if it turns out he was NOT the author of doctoral thesis on comparative protestant mythology, or whatever.

  15. Right-wing fanatics distrust every government agency EXCEPT the FBI when it spies on left wingers.

    1. You’re damn right!

    2. Why don’t you go tell it to some right wing fanatics who do that, then?

  16. I went looking for metal songs with lyrics that mention Martin Luther King, but the only one I could find was by a mid-90s rap-metal band. Even I couldn’t inflict that on you people.

    1. How about U2? “in the name of love” was the name of the song I believe?

      1. Sorry, I missed the part about metal songs 🙂

        1. U2 isn’t metal? What about Jethro Tull?

    2. …the only one I could find was by a mid-90s rap-metal band.

      1. “I’m the singer-rapper! I can do it all, son!”

      2. Best Metalocalpyse quote ever: “Marriage has always been a black and repugnant sore on human living.”

  17. Thanks so much for this post and the link to MLKs Letter from Birmingham Jail. I remember how profoundly that letter impacted me when I first read it in High School nearly 30 years ago. Since then, I have read it nearly every year on his birthday. It never ceases to both shame and inspire me.

    1. just read it for maybe the first time. At least inrecent memory. But amazing. I am shamed. Yet I am inspire.

      Also, need naptime. Sentences cannot complete. I’ve failed. You.

  18. MLK wasn’t much of a libertarian.

    In fact, I’m sure today’s libertarians would argue that the FREE MARKET would have resolved the matter and there was really no need for civil rights.

    1. scooore!

    2. Pretty much any libertarian would argue that the civil rights movement was necessary precisely because of the institutionalized racism enforced by government agents.

      1. Why is it unacceptable for there to be any villains besides government? Surely libertarians are capable of acknowledging social phenomena that happen outside of government, and can be in favor of changing them through social movements.

        1. Why is it unacceptable for there to be any villains besides government?

          Straw man. It is you who ignores the fact that the government is the villain, as well as an enabler of other villains.

          Changing things through ‘social movements’ is entirely possible in a free market. Once the government decides to ‘regulate’ everyone and everything, however, any ‘social movement’ must obtain permission from the government.

          The marches were against government mandated segregation – hence the link to “letter from a birmingham jail”. Read it – it explains a lot.

  19. FFS – As a libertarian I am glad not all the people that do awesome things in this world like MLK are libertarians – I think folks like Havel and Mandela are pretty cool too despite not sounding like Jacob Hornblower everything they give a speech or write an essay…bloody hell.

  20. My grandmother once had this say to me reguarding King’s womanizing:

    “Now, sweetheart, God considered King David a man after his own heart. Yet, King David did something far worse than Dr. King ever did…he had an affair with another man’s wife and then sent that man off to be killed in the wars so that he could have his wife all to himself. Yet God forgave King David and still held him in high esteem. Now, if God can forgive King David, I think you and I can forgive Dr. King for his own failings, don’t you think?”

    1. not unless you’re an american conservative that would bring up ANYTHING to dis-credit MLK.

      Either way, Both King David and MLK were no good cheats when it came to their women…just like many people (conservatives and liberals alike).

      1. I’m and American conservative and I have no desire to discredit him. While I recognize King’s imperfections, I also recognize my own. I also see absolutely no connection between his public calls for justice and his personal failings.

        Whatever his personal failings and private goals, the words and works for which he is primarily remembered were a positive force for freedom and justice. His efforts dismantled oppressive laws and forced Americans to confront immorality in our midst. That sounds conservative to me.

        1. His efforts dismantled oppressive laws and forced Americans to confront immorality in our midst. That sounds conservative to me.

          Except for the fact that it was CONSERVATIVES against him ALL of THE WAY.

          1. True. Lots of conservatives (mostly conservative southern democrats like Al Gore’s dad) were against him and civil rights in general. Luckily people change. Most conservatives TODAY support King’s message (though many oppose modern so-called civil rights leaders that no longer pursue King’s dream). While I’m not a Tea Partier, I’d bet good money that more that 90% support the ideals voiced in King’s “I have a dream” speech. Remember, King’s niece spoke at Beck’s rally, not Sharpton’s.

            1. Yeah but you guys were pretty late to the party. It’s not exactly brave to pick the winner after the winner has been chosen.

              And it doesn’t help the conservative cause when one of the movement’s main priorities (still) is keeping all the welfare away from minorities and in the pockets of millionaires.

              1. one of the movement’s main priorities (still) is keeping all the welfare away from minorities and in the pockets of millionaires.

                Damn that Bill Clinton!

                Because if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that any excess tax money goes straight into the pockets of the poor – like Hank Paulson and Larry Summers.

            2. Except for the fact that it was CONSERVATIVES against him ALL of THE WAY.

              And now the Left is against him, because of all that messy talk of liberty and freedom, and the unpleasant fact that he resisted government imposed limitations on his and others’ behavior.

              So many confused assholes like you that imagine this site as a bastion of conservatism.

              Face it, it’s the talk of individual freedom that you can’t stand.

              1. Anti-Drugs
                Anti-gay Marriage
                …is this the LEFT? And, is it NOT the Government by LAWS put there by the RIGHT that is, in fact, imposing limitation on people.

                U R THE ASSHOLE that is clueless…Just like those in the past that supported and were very happy with MLKs assassination.

        2. Word, Bro.

    2. Rudy Guiliani cheated on his wife…the conservatives forgave him.

      Larry Craig tried to play dick-doctor with an undercover cop in a public mens room…his wife forgave him.

      Slick Willie got his willy wet by Monica…Hilary and pretty much the rest of the progressive world forgave him.

      1. Yeah, but they weren’t black. Right-wing fanatics hate blacks. Ask Ron Paul.

  21. I definitely think King had a positive effect on human freedom. What other standard would a libertarian use?

    1. Precisely. Whatever his ideology or extracurricular activities, the man stood up for people whose natural rights as human beings were not being recognized, and he changed things. So what if he wasn’t a saint?

  22. So MLK Day brings out Reason’s dumbest/most drug-addled trolls en force. Fantastic.

    1. Keep Dope Alive !!!

    2. Xeones – drugs could only improve their intellectual capacity.

  23. How many leaders in this country that tried to help black people that have been assassinated?

    Black people have been enslaved, sold like luggage, told to sit in the back of the bus, give sub-standard education, work, and housing opportunities.

    And, throughout all of that, CONSERVATIVES CLAIMED (as they do today) that they are NOT RACIST.

    1. Conservatives did racist things in the past. Hence today’s conservatives are racists even though they don’t do racist things.

      Makes perfect sense.

  24. How many leaders in this country that tried to help black people that have been assassinated?

    It’s really really difficult, seeing as they’re dead.

  25. Capitalists actually opposed segregation, and in some surprising places as well:

  26. There’s a post over at The Volokh Conspiracy about how MLK personally convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay on as Uhura on Star Trek after the first season.

    A great man. A truly great man, and I won’t hear anyone say any different.

  27. +1 of something RC.

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