King's spontaneous words inspired a nation 'I have a dream' defined movement

August 27, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

The most powerful words ever uttered by the hero of the civil-rights movement might never have been spoken at the historic march on Washington.

It was inspiration -- some say divine inspiration -- that led the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to tell the quarter-million men and women in the heart of a divided nation, "I have a dream . . ."

As Dr. King stepped to the podium, he saw in those 250,000 people the largest political demonstration in the history of America, a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

Dr. King did not plan even to mention the dream. With strict, equal time limits set for each speaker, there simply wasn't time to say all that he wanted to say and still speak of his dream for all God's children.

By 3:47 p.m. Dr. King had reached the end of his allotted seven minutes. He should have wrapped it up. But he was just starting to soar.

"All of a sudden -- the audience response was wonderful that day -- and all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used -- I'd used it many times before, that thing about 'I have a dream' -- and I just felt that I wanted to use it here," Dr. King later recounted.

Said Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King: "At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared."

From that day forward, the preacher son of a Baptist preacher "became the conscience of America," in the words of civil-rights veteran Joseph Lowery, the longtime president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the position Dr. King held when he made his famous speech.

Three decades later, "I Have a Dream" is chiseled into the American memory as the refrain of the plea for racial justice in segregated America. And the march where Dr. King spoke his dream for his children and all those who followed them became a turning point in the move toward integration and equality in this country.

How did Dr. King come to speak so movingly of his hopes that sons of slaves and slave owners could sit at the table of brotherhood, of his vision of a nation where his four small children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"?

Was it Mahalia Jackson, the legendary gospel singer, near Dr. King on the speaker's platform, who prompted him to toss aside the rest of his written speech when she hollered, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin"?

Who knows whether he even heard her.

Moments before Dr. King spoke, SCLC Washington Director Walter E. Fauntroy, a minister, invoked the words of a spiritual well known to civil-rights protesters.

"We had a march song that we used," Mr. Fauntroy said, "that we had taken from the church: 'I'm goin' to do what the Spirit say do, oh Lord, and if the Spirit say march, oh Lord, I'm going to march . . . If the spirit say sing, oh Lord,

I'm going to sing . . . If the spirit say vote, oh Lord, I'm going to vote.'"

Before Dr. King approached the microphone, Mr. Fauntroy, now president of a Washington consulting firm after many years as the city's delegate in Congress, remembers telling Dr. King, "Do what the Spirit say do."

Was it the Spirit that moved Dr. King that day?

"Lay people and people who don't believe in God don't understand what I call divine inspiration, particularly among the black clergy," said Benjamin Hooks, a Memphis, Tenn., preacher and lawyer and former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "King came at the end of a long, hard and hot day, and the people were waiting for him, and he was lifted up."

Clearly, the crowd lifted Dr. King off his typewritten page, away from the less-than-inspiring prose he'd written in his Willard Hotel suite only hours earlier.

Gone, left unspoken, was this mundane sentence: "And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction."

In its place was the unforgettable, extemporaneous dream riff, soaring Bible-based oratory that he had been honing, delivering, polishing for at least two years, although he did not expect to deliver it at this march.

Two months earlier, at a march for 125,000 in Detroit, with no limit on his speaking time, Dr. King had delivered a longer version of his vision of a color-blind America.

And just the week before the Washington march, he had spoken of the dream in Chicago, at a big fund-raising event before the black National Insurance Association.

But it was the Washington speech that brought Dr. King the ultimate attention: live television coverage on all three networks of not just a fragment, a news clip, a sound bite, but the entire speech, almost 19 minutes long.

In his account of the King years, "Parting the Waters," Baltimorean Taylor Branch reported that among those seeing and hearing a complete King speech for the first time was the president of the United States, watching on a television at the White House. "He's damn good," John F. Kennedy said.

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