Martin Luther King’s most famous speech was off the cuff, book says
Forty-eight years ago, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, I Have a Dream, brought the issue of discrimination and segregation to the public fore, and made him perhaps the greatest speaker of all time. What is less widely known is that the speech was completely off the cuff.
This is what Clarence Jones, King’s speechwriter and lawyer, says in his book, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation, which Jones co-wrote with Stuart Connelly, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Today, Jones is scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute. He is also one of the last living close friends of King, and the only one, he tells Politico, “who was with Martin Luther King Jr. 24/7 in the weeks before and during the March on Washington.”
He is referring to the August 28, 1963 March at the Lincoln Memorial, where the words I Have a Dream became identified with the civil rights movement. According to Politico, King actually had a speech prepared for that day, which Jones helped draft.
But as King stood before 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, gospel music legend Mahalia Jackson yelled, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And King shoved his notes aside. Jones told Politico neither the notes, nor any previous draft of the prepared speech had the words, ‘I have a dream.’”
Jones stood behind King that day. He told Politico, “I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.’”
Turned King down
According to AJC, when one of King’s counselors first approached Jones for legal assistance, the lawyer turned him down. At the time, Jones was only interested in making money.
King needed legal help because the government was trying to pin a dubious tax evasion charge on him. Jones thought at the time, “Just because some Negro preacher got his hand caught in the cookie jar, that is not my problem,” AJC reported.
Jones’ wife, Anne, was alarmed and openly expressed her dismay, so Jones grudgingly accepted King’s invitation to go to church. King was slated to speak at a Los Angeles church near Jones’ home. After that, Jones became his disciple, AJC said.
No Blackberry generation
The behind-the-scenes story of the 1963 March is, in itself, compelling. Jones told Politico, “I don’t think the public knew, but up until 24 hours before the March, there was a little bit of skepticism among the organizers. There was anxiety about how many people might attend. We didn’t have Blackberries or cell phones, or anything like that. The best we had was spotters near major highways saying, ‘There seem to be a lot of people coming in.’”
There was also concern that only a few white people would attend. The message of the March, Politico reported, was that “an integrated, multi-racial society could work.” There was great relief when a quarter of all who came were white.
Politico said there were economic concerns, too. The organizers culled a large debt preparing for the March, and the only way they could recover would be through the sale of posters, buttons and other souvenirs at the rally.
The lesson, co-author Connelly told Politico, is that “the key to change is to take action. Even if it isn’t planned perfectly, it’s better than waiting.”
Free national parks
Martin Luther King’s Day will be celebrated this weekend up to Monday. All the national parks will be free, The New York Times said, which would make it a great time to go to Yosemite or to visit the Grand Canyon.
The Martin Luther King website suggests rendering service, and one can look for projects near one’s community by visiting the site. One can also share one’s plans or become an e-reporter for that day. (Go to http://mlkday.gov/ if interested).
Jones said King would be happy if he were alive today, to know that minorities are moving up the economic ladder, and that the U.S. has elected its first African-American president.
But he suggests much still needs to be done, and I Have a Dream is still relevant. He told Politico, “There is nothing more powerful than the words themselves, all I seek to do [with 'Behind the Dream'] is fill in the blank space.”