Given the context in which it was delivered, the surprise is not that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech remains so well known, but that it continues to be remembered at all. It was delivered at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963, as one man’s contribution to a day-long protest that was designed and organised by veteran civil rights campaigners A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to bring constitutional freedoms and greater job prospects to African Americans. Although King’s oratory is now routinely cited as both a seminal moment in the civil rights struggle and an unparalleled spell of oratorical genius, at the time there were fundamental issues that threatened not only the way in which it was received by its intended audience, but also its very delivery.
Although marches that converge on the nation’s capital are now commonplace, they were essentially pioneered by the 1963 the March on Washington which brought an estimated 250,000 protestors to descend upon the Lincoln Memorial. As a result, there was genuine anxiety that this would bring not ordered celebration, but disordered chaos and violence: a slew of Senators and Congressmen from both parties urged the Kennedy Administration to put a halt to the March, citing the threat of violence that had characterised southern segregationist responses to recent civil rights marches and non-violent direct action protest; others used the Cold War atmosphere of the time to raise concerns over Randolph and Rustin’s leftist political credentials, for both men were committed to various shades of socialism; and the capital’s police force complained that it would be impossible to maintain law and order if the march were to go ahead as planned.
There were further hindrances in terms of the participants themselves. As the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King was only one of a rich roster of speakers put together to address the assembled crowds during the day. The others were a diverse cast of characters, ranging from cultural performers — including Hollywood idol Burt Lancaster, singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, contralto Marian Anderson and Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson – to other civil rights leaders and activists. It proved to be a potent – and potentially combustible – mix. Ever since the sit-in movement had injected a new sense of pace and purpose into civil rights activism in 1960, a new generation of student activists had infused that protest with a greater sense of radicalism and urgency, with the result that King was increasingly viewed not as the cutting-edge leader of a modern movement who had first emerged during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, but as an establishment figure. That growing radicalism was reflected in a number of ways that threatened the day’s unity: a leading figure of the student movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s John Lewis, drafted a speech that was deemed to be so potentially inflammatory that a number of other participants threatened to pull out of the event entirely unless Lewis could be convinced to redraft his words to tone them down; in what was interpreted by some as a slight on King’s establishment status, the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Farmer preferred to remain in jail in Louisiana than take his place on the March on Washington podium, believing on principle that it was more important to the movement’s overall goals to refuse bail and fill up segregationist jails than to deliver one speech in Washington; and, in the clearest example of the changing mood and pace of civil rights activism, when King finally came to his “I Have a Dream” refrain, microphones picked up one member of the crowd responding not with the praise and phrases redolent of a southern Baptist church, but with the impatience of a radicalised citizen who had waited for a century since the Emancipation of the slaves, but was still not free. “Fuck the dream, Martin,” he was heard to have yelled. “I want it now.”
Finally, there were issues with King’s performance itself. By the time that he took to the podium, the crowd had already begun seeping away, concerned on a Wednesday afternoon to begin the difficult journey home as start as possible for a working day the next morning. Moreover, it was not until the final stages of his stint at the microphone that King chose to turned to his “I Have a Dream” refrain, which had not formed any part of the speech that he had painstakingly drafted and redrafted in advance. To many who had previously heard him in action and were familiar with the ways in which he could switch between a slow, sonorous baritone and blistering, emotionally-charged rhetoric with apparent ease, King had appeared oddly disengaged and lacking in focus in that August heat. It was not until Mahalia Jackson, who was standing on the podium behind him, called out to “tell them about the Dream, Martin,” that he departed from his prepared script and launched into the refrain that he had drawn upon several times previously in church sermons, and for which the March on Washington is now largely remembered. Nevertheless, that radical student was not the only one who, at the time, was disaffected by what was on offer. Wyatt T. Walker, a key member of King’s inner strategic circle, shook his head in disbelief, having already warned King about the “trite cliché” of the “Dream.” When he had reached his conclusion, King himself thought that he had “blown” his opportunity, and the evening’s newspapers, too, largely omitted him and his words from their day’s reporting.
Deep inside the White House, however, John Kennedy read the day’s events differently. “He’s damned good,” the President commented, having listened to the “Dream” speech on a live feed broadcast by network television. The processes of history, and the evolution of public memory, leant towards Kennedy’s rather than King’s assessments. The March is now clearly ensconced in public memory as one of the high points of a civil rights movement that is remembered not for the divisions that were on display during the day itself, but for showcasing a rare period of consensus in American racial politics. King’s speech may have disappointed those African Americans who were familiar with the folk pulpit style of the southern Baptist tradition, but for the vast majority of the audience who had not previously heard King in full flow, it was soon remembered as a Damascene moment for a movement that was now truly American in scope and character. Within a year, the US Congress had approved the 1964 Civil Rights Act; within two, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As King’s confidant and legal adviser, Clarence Jones, appositely put it when King finally decided to depart from his prepared speech to go where the spirit took him, “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”
Dr George Lewis, Reader in American History & Director, Centre for American Studies.