Civil Liberties

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.