‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’
Speaking from the heart on Martin Luther King Day
It felt like the most important day of his life.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that the March on Washington would be a special chance to get the nation to pay attention. To wake us up to the denial of liberty and justice for all Black Americans, and to bring about change.
He was right to feel that this was the Day of All Days. This was his moment, the great chance for Civil Rights, the time when we would find out if the sun on the horizon was rising or setting on liberty for Black Americans.
As many of us do when faced with big moments, Dr. King worked as hard as he possibly could on his speech. He stayed up until 4 in the morning revising the draft that his team, including his trusted advisor and lawyer, had put together based on his discussions.
As a result of the overwork, he was over-prepared. In the polishing and the pruning and the perfecting, the draft had lost sight of the big goal: to inspire and change a nation.
It was a good, solid speech. Well-written. Cogent. Made a logical case, using an elaborate metaphor for the wrongs done and the liberty denied America’s Black population for centuries.
It was a speech you could believe with your head. But it did nothing to move your heart.
And if the speech he gave that day had followed the written text; if he hadn’t departed from what had been handed out to the press; if he hadn’t been inspired in the moment by America’s most famous gospel singer, we might not remember the speech at all.
You can watch the full segment from the March on Washington, and find this pre-written speech between 2:00 and 12:00. You’ll see that it is not the speech of a Baptist preacher speaking from the heart.
Meanwhile, Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer who had preceded Dr. King with moving renditions of gospel classics, was listening. She’d heard his speeches before, and she knew his greatest hits by heart.
She was a woman who understood that the way to make people remember, was to make them feel your message, not just hear it. That the way to make history remember, is to make the generations feel it.
Dr. King’s prepared speech is heavy on the big words, and it’s a very good statement of political philosophy. But it wasn’t moving the people the way Mahalia knew he could.
“In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
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 its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
True, smart, insightful. The crowd is enjoying it. But it’s a little bit complicated to follow. And if the goal is to change America’s mind on the moral issues, it’s not clear how this section sweeps along the sleeping majority.
There’s actually a terrific story – too long to include here – about how ”promissory note” came to be the centerpiece of the written speech. It involves the Birmingham jail, a midnight flight, a Rockefeller, an after-hours visit to the headquarters of Chase Bank in Manhattan, and a briefcase filled with $100,000 in cash. It’s worthy of a movie script in itself, but like I said, it’s a story for another day.
The advisors’ draft is heavy on long words that come to us from Latin roots - promissory, insufficient, obligation, magnificent. For thousand of years, Latin words have been associated with science, learning and civilization. And the advisors packed the speech with big words and long syllables to appeal to what’s learned and civilized within us.
But it’s not in long words and many syllables where we keep our hearts.
As King reaches the halfway mark, his friend, the gospel singer, sparks something in him. Many people there on that day report Mahalia Jackson urging King to drop the fancy talk and speak from the heart.
“Tell them about the Dream, Martin!” she yelled from behind him, “Please, Martin, tell them about the Dream!”
She had heard the previous speeches, with previous mentions of the Dream, before, but knew that this crowd, on this day, was the audience that could inspire Martin Luther King more than any other. That the great moment of a quarter million people congregated in the capital would call up the greatest performance of his life.
Finally, Dr. King puts downs his text, stops reading his notes, and with his eyes raised to heaven, says,
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
He is not reading notes, he is not arguing from text. It is the years, and the decades, and the centuries, speaking through him. He started the speech in facts, but is ending it in history, as perhaps the most famous segment comes next,
“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.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification;”
It is interesting that here in the second half of his speech, he only uses the big words, the Latin words, to refer to the evil deeds of the unjust. Sweltering, nullification, interposition - these uncomfortable and alien words separate the listener from those behaviors, cast out the evildoers, show them to be unwanted and un-American. This is great speech-making - the words he chooses make you feel his point, at a level deeper than you recognize.
“One day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.”
Winston Churchill said “Short words are best and the old words, when short, are best of all.”
In contrast to the vicious racists, Dr King uses the shortest, oldest words of all, to share with us his dream of the future - little black boys and black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
It’s beautiful because it is so simple, so true, so loving.
I’ve watched or listened to Dr. King’s speech in full every year for the past two decades. I always find myself rooting for him in the first half, and tearing up in the second half. Was it divinely inspired, with his eyes looking to the heavens, and speaking, not in tongues but in truth? Who can say, but the spirit moved him that day, along with everyone in the audience, and the rest of American history.
None of us will match King’s eloquence in our lifetimes, but we have been inspired to make his dream more true with every passing year.
And for waking us up, to Dr. King we are eternally grateful.