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Reflections on MLK's "I Have a Dream"

19th January 2014

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Four words that defined an era, sparked a movement, and ignited a nation. These four words have gone down in the annals of history as the highlight of one of the most famous, powerful speeches of the twentieth century and an enduring American legacy.

One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, to a crowd of over 250,000 civil rights supporters. President Kennedy watched from the Oval Office. The stirring speech, given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fueled the Civil Rights movement.

Many people who were there that day saw an uncharacteristically nervous Reverend King, who referred often to his notes. Even for an experienced orator, the quarter of a million crowd was formidable. At around paragraph seven, Dr. King looked up at the crowd. Some bystanders say it was in response to Mahalia Jackson’s fervent call, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Others say it was Dr. King’s uncanny ability to connect with a crowd. But when he put his carefully crafted speech aside and spoke extemporaneously, “It was as if a cosmic force took over the physical form of the body,” said Dr. Clarence Jones⎯King’s political advisor, lawyer and speechwriter.

Dr. King grabbed the lectern, and began to improvise, speaking from the heart, reviving a phrase he had used before with little impact. His words galvanized a nation with his prophetic dreams of freedom and equality.

Several drafts of the speech had been written over the days leading up to the March. Not one of them contained the words “I have a dream.”

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