While it is hard to overstate the impact of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Black freedom, American politics and world history, he is perhaps most famously remembered for his August 28, 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech.
Delivered as the keynote address during the March on Washington, King’s words have gone down in history as one of the world’s most inspiring and influential speeches of all time. The speech is still having a notable impact on American history today. For example, the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, who are named after King’s speech, were influential in helping to elect the Rev. Raphael Warnock – the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King once preached – as the 11th Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate.
While it is hard to find an American who does not know many of the key phrases and statements from the “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s much about King’s address that history books and retrospectives often omit or overlook. Here then are five things you likely don’t know about the March on Washington and King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
Authorities looked for trouble that never came
Government officials baselessly assumed that the March on Washington would lead to violence. Two months before the march, President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, gathered King, Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the heads of the NAACP, the Urban League and the United Auto Workers to the White House to try to dissuade King from holding the march. Instead, King and Randolph assured the president that the event would be peaceful, and the meeting convinced the other organizations to participate in the march as well.
Despite the promise that the march would be peaceful, government authorities prepared heavily, mobilizing 19,000 National Guard troops and emptying nearby jails to make room for widespread arrests. In the end, only four arrests were made, all of which were people attempting to disrupt the march.
W.E.B. Du Bois never heard the speech, but his legacy influenced it
Famed American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, the co-founder of the NAACP, author of works such as The Souls of Black Folk, and pioneer of the Pan-African movement that inspired solidarity and movements for freedom among Black people around the world, did much in his life to set the stage for the Civil Rights movement. Du Bois in many ways held a similar position within the Black community of his generation that King did in his time. For instance, Du Bois’ 1904 poem “Credo,” a pro-black manifesto of racial equality, was in its day similar to King’s speech in its tone and in its impact on the Black community.
Though Du Bois and King had little interaction during their lives, King’s famous speech symbolically represented a final passing of the torch from one Black icon to another, as Du Bois, who had left America to live in Ghana, died the night before the speech. Thus, the march held a moment of silence for the death of Du Bois prior to King giving his speech, which in many ways reflected the ideals of equality and justice that Du Bois had espoused for decades.
The crowd at the March on Washington almost didn’t hear King’s speech
Prior to the March on Washington, one of its main organizers – the extremely influential but oft-forgotten Civil Rights and LGBTQ activist Bayard Rustin – insisted that they raise $20,000 for a state-of-the-art sound system so that all in attendance could hear the speech, even though this was ten times what was usually spent on sound equipment for such events. Even though donors came through to fund the equipment, unknown parties sabotaged it the night before. The sound system was only fixed in time after organizers appealed to Attorney General Kennedy to personally intervene. Kennedy sent in members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the repairs. Even with this fix in place, it was not a given that the crowd would be able to hear King's words, as several sources present that day later claimed that authorities were poised to cut the audio if King or one of the other speakers said something that seemed too radical. In the end, no one pulled the plug, and King’s words went down in history.
Those four famous words almost didn’t make the speech
King was still working on his speech hours before the March on Washington began. Gathering a team of his most trusted advisers, King went through several drafts of the speech, juggling different ideas of what he should say. In the process, King actually cut the lines about his “dream,” which he had often mentioned in sermons. Those around him had heard him use this line too often and worried that it had become stale.
King delivered his famous speech on a hot summer day. The crowd of hundreds of thousands of students, Black celebrities and supporters from across the country hung on King’s every word and shouted out like church members responding to a sermon. Among those shouting was legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a longtime confidant of King who had sung to the crowd just before King’s speech.
At one point, as King was beginning to ad-lib portions of the speech, Jackson shouted for him to “tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.” It was at that point that King put aside his prepared remarks and began to speak off the cuff, uttering the words about his dream that have gone down in history.
You’ve probably only heard half of King’s speech
The full title of the event at which King spoke was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and his full speech, which lasted about 16 minutes, reflects those priorities. The first half of the speech, though less lofty in its language, was much more focused on the specific grievances of the Black community and the injustices Black people were facing at the time. Using the metaphor of America writing “a bad check” to Black people, King argued that America had not fulfilled the promises made to Black people at emancipation and thus still owed the Black community.
King laid out specific grievances that Black folks had at the time, including not only segregation but “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” lack of economic opportunities for urban Black people, voter suppression and Black voter apathy. “We cannot be satisfied,” King argued, “as long as a negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
It’s only in the second half of King’s speech that he pivoted from expressing the problems of the day to laying out his vision of the future, and it’s this second half of the speech that is generally replayed on television and taught in schools. While it is easy to understand why King’s unforgettable expression of his hopes and ideals has been so well remembered, his oft-forgotten reflections on the realities of the conditions facing Black folks also remain as relevant today as they were 58 years ago.
You can listen to the full version of King’s iconic speech here: