The first draft of ‘I have a dream’

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY CLARENCE B. JONES

It was the late spring of 1963, and my friend Martin was ex­hausted. The cam­paign to in­te­grate the pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties in Birm­ing­ham had been suc­cess­ful but also tremen­dously tax­ing. In its af­ter­math, he wanted noth­ing more than to take Coretta and the chil­dren away for a vacation and for­get — for­get the loom­ing book dead­line, the of­fice pol­i­tics of his ever-grow­ing South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, the con­stant need to raise funds.

But a date for the March on Washington for Jobs and Free­dom had been nailed down — Aug. 28 — and Martin re­al­ized he couldn’t plan such a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing with the usual end­less in­ter­rup­tions. No, if this march were go­ing to come to­gether in time, he would have to es­cape all the dis­trac­tions. (This was a man, af­ter all, whose best writ­ing was done in­side a jail cell.) He needed to get away to a place where very few peo­ple could reach him.

That would be my house in Riverdale, N.Y.

For the pre­vi­ous three years, I had been an ad­viser to Martin Luther King Jr., his per­sonal lawyer and one of his speech­writ­ers. Stan­ley Levison, an­other ad­viser who had done even more work with Martin on his speeches than I had, was also a New Yorker. Be­cause of some dark ops on the part of the FBI, Martin could not deal di­rectly with Stan­ley, yet he very much val­ued his ad­vice, so it made sense for Martin to stay at my home and have me act as a go-be­tween as we planned the March on Washington — and the speech Martin would de­liver.

The lo­gis­ti­cal prepa­ra­tions for the march were so bur­den­some that the speech was not a pri­or­ity for us. Early in the sum­mer, Martin asked some trusted col­leagues at the SCLC for their thoughts on his ad­dress, and dur­ing his weeks in New York, we had dis­cus­sions about it. But it wasn’t un­til mid-Au­gust that Martin had Stan­ley and I work up a draft. And though I had that­ma­te­rial with me when I ar­rived at the Wil­lardHo­tel in­Wash­ing­ton for a meet­ing on the evening of Tues­day, Aug. 27, Martin still didn’t know what he was go­ing to say.

We met in the lobby rather than in a suite, un­der the as­sump­tion that the lobby would be harder to wire­tap. Ta­bles, chairs and plants acted as a cor­don of pri­vacy. It was with this odd start, hid­ing

in plain sight, that 12 hours be­fore the March on Washington be­gan, Martin gath­ered with a small group of ad­vis­ers to ham­mer out the themes of his speech.

He had re­acted well to the ma­te­rial Stan­ley and I had pre­pared, but he also knew that many of the march’s sup­port­ers and or­ga­niz­ers — la­bor unions, re­li­gious groups, com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions and aca­demic lead­ers — needed to be heard as well. So that evening he had a cross-sec­tion of ad­vis­ers present to fill any blind spots. Cleve­land Robin­son, Wal­ter Faun­troy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Aber­nathy, Lawrence Red­dick and I joined him, along with­Wy­at­tWalker and Ba­yard Rustin, who were in and out of our de­lib­er­a­tions.

As we ate sand­wiches, our sug­ges­tions tum­bled out. Ev­ery­one, it seemed, had a dif­fer­ent take. Cleve, Lawrence and I saw the speech as an op­por­tu­nity to stake an ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal marker in the de­bate over civil rights and seg­re­ga­tion. Oth­ers were more in­clined for Martin to de­liver a sort of church ser­mon, steeped in para­bles and Bi­ble quotes. Some, how­ever, wor­ried that bib­li­cal lan­guage would ob­fus­cate the real mes­sage — re­form of the le­gal sys­tem. And still oth­ers wanted Martin to di­rect his re­speech marks to the stu­dents, black and white, who would be march­ing that day.

Martin got frus­trated try­ing to keep ev­ery­thing straight, so he asked me to take notes. I quickly re­al­ized that putting to­gether these var­i­ous con­cepts into a sin­gle ad­dress would be dif­fi­cult. Martin would have to take one ap­proach — his own — with the other ideas some­how sup­port­ing his larger vi­sion. I kept on tak­ing notes, won­der­ing how some­one would turn all this into a co­he­sive speech. As it turned out, that would bemy task.

Even­tu­ally, Martin looked to me and said, “Clarence, why don’t you ex­cuse your­self and go up­stairs. You can sum­ma­rize the points­made­here and re­turn with an out­line.”

I sat in my room, flip­ping through the scrawled pages of the yel­low le­gal pad, strug­gling to boil down ev­ery­one’s per­spec­tives. The idea of urg­ing the crowd to take spe­cific ac­tions, as op­posed to a gen­eral kind of com­plain­ing, seemed one area of agree­ment. (The march’s or­ga­niz­ing man­ual even had a head­line that spelled it out: “WhatWe De­mand.”)

A con­ver­sa­tion that I’d had dur­ing the Birm­ing­ham cam­paign with then-New York Gov. Nel­son Rock­e­feller in­spired an open­ing anal­ogy: African Amer­i­cans march­ing to Washington to re­deem a prom­is­sory note or a check for jus­tice. From there, a pro­posed draft took shape.

And the words “I have a dream” were nowhere in it.

About an hour later, I took my writ­ing back to the lobby and be­gan pre­sent­ing it to the group. Im­me­di­ately the oth­ers in­ter­rupted: “What about—” “Why didn’t you—” “I thought we agreed—” They were all over me. And given the fact that sev­eral were Bap­tist preach­ers, there was no small amount of grand­stand­ing. I be­gan de­fend­ing my­self, but Martin in­ter­vened. “Okay, broth­ers,” he said, “ thank you so much ev­ery­body for your sug­ges­tions and in­put. . . . I am­now go­ing up­stairs to my room to coun­sel withmy Lord.”

He walked qui­etly to­ward the el­e­va­tors, leav­ing the rest of us to look at each other. “ To­mor­row, then,” some­one said, and we dis­persed.

To­mor­row, as his­tory would record, turned out to be an enor­mous suc­cess. The weather and the mas­sive crowd were in sync — both calm and warm for the March on Washington. Even the D.C. Metropoli­tan Po­lice, which had been

brac­ing for a race riot, had noth­ing to com­plain about.

I re­mem­ber when it was all over but the fi­nal act. As I stood some 50 feet be­hind the lectern, march Chair­man A. Philip Ran­dolph in­tro­duced Martin, to wild ap­plause, as “ the moral leader of our nation.” And I still didn’t know how Martin had pulled the speech to­gether af­ter our meet­ing.

Af­ter Martin greeted the peo­ple as­sem­bled, he be­gan his speech, and I was shocked when these words quickly rolled out:

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.

Martin was es­sen­tially recit­ing the open­ing sug­ges­tions I’d handed in the night be­fore. This was strange, given the way he usu­ally worked over the ma­te­rial Stan­ley and I pro­vided. When he fin­ished the prom­is­sory note anal­ogy, he paused. And in that breach, some­thing un­ex­pected, his­toric and largely un­her­alded hap­pened. Martin’s fa­vorite gospel singer, Ma­halia Jack­son, who had per­formed ear­lier in the day, called to him from nearby: “ Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream!”

Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to re­set. Iwatched him push the text of his pre­pared re­marks to one side. I knew this per­for­mance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the per­son next to me, “ These peo­ple out there to­day don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”

What could pos­si­bly mo­ti­vate a man stand­ing be­fore a crowd of hun­dreds of thou­sands, with tele­vi­sion cam­eras beam­ing his ev­ery move and a clus­ter of mi­cro­phones trac­ing his ev­ery word, to aban­don the pre­pared text of his speech and be­gin riff­ing on a theme that he had used pre­vi­ously with­out gen­er­at­ing much en­thu­si­asm from lis­ten­ers?

Be­fore our eyes, he trans­formed him­self into the su­perb, third-gen­er­a­tion Bap­tist preacher that he was, and he spoke those words that in ret­ro­spect feel des­tined to ring out that day:

I have a dream . . .

In front of all those peo­ple, cam­eras, and mi­cro­phones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I’ve ever met could im­pro­vise bet­ter.

The speech went on to de­part dras­ti­cally from the draft I’d de­liv­ered, and I’ll be the first to tell you that Amer­ica is the bet­ter for it. As I look back on my ver­sion, I re­al­ize that nearly any con­fi­dent pub­lic speaker could have held the crowd’s at­ten­tion with it. But a dif­fer­ent man could not have de­liv­ered “I Have a Dream.”

Some be­lieve, though the facts are oth­er­wise, thatMartin was such a su­perla­tive writer that he never needed oth­ers to draft ma­te­rial for him. I un­der­stand that be­lief; fate made Martin a mar­tyr and a unique Amer­i­can myth — and myths stand alone. But ad­mit­ting that even this un­equaled writer had peo­ple help­ing him hardly takes any­thing away. Peo­ple like Stan­ley, Ma­halia and I helped him max­i­mize his bril­liance. If not, why would Ma­halia in­ter­rupt a planned ad­dress? She wasn’t un­happy with the ma­te­rial he was read­ing — she just wanted him to preach.

That he did. You only have to hear the record­ing of even a hand­ful of the words from his speech and, for the rest of your life, when you read it you will hear his sig­na­ture cadence. Can you hear it now?

I have a dream that my four lit­tle chil­dren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter. I have a dream to­day!

The crowd was rapt. Tears of joy fell ev­ery­where. And when Martin ended with a cried re­frain from a spir­i­tual that pre­dated the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, the sense of his­tory — past and fu­ture— struck me full force:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

More than 40 years later, I was in­vited to visit Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion In­sti­tute as a can­di­date for an aca­demic post. Imet with the di­rec­tor, who knew I had just started work on a book about Martin and wanted to con­vince me that I should write it there. To demon­strate the wealth of the in­sti­tute’s re­search ma­te­ri­als, he had me choose a date from the years I had worked with Martin. I of­fered Aug. 28, 1963. One of the staffers soon brought in a card­board box with pa­pers re­lated to that day. Among them was a copy of the pro­gram that had been handed out at the march. At the time, no one could pos­si­bly un­der­stand the emo­tional im­pact this had on me. It was the stan­dard pro­gram ex­cept for one corner, where it bore a hand­writ­ten note to Martin — from me.

“Dear Martin — just learned that Dr. W.E.B. Dubois died last night in Ghana. Some­one should make note of this fact.”

I was look­ing at a copy of my own pro­gram, some­thing I’d ur­gently writ­ten on and passed through the crowd to Martin upon the dais. Tears welled inmy eyes as I imag­ined its long jour­ney from my hand to the in­sti­tute’s files. I felt Martin, my friend, reach­ing out and say­ing to me, “Keep our dream alive.”

That is what this coun­try does ev­ery Jan­uary on Martin Luther King Day. I am hope­ful that some­time soon, it will be what we do ev­ery day of the year.


Martin Luther King Jr. at theMarch onWash­ing­ton on Aug. 28, 1963. Though he had pre­pared re­marks, much of his “IHave a Dream” speech was im­pro­vised.

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