“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” Charles Caleb Colton (1824)
In the case of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” greatness improved upon greatness numerous times through the power of the Black Church’s oral tradition, respect for the ministry, and a little borrowing and polishing, influencing the power behind the inception and delivery of what we have come to know as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
A sequence of ordinary events, involving Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., culminated in the extraordinary speech delivered at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963:
Dr. King heard at some point in his life, a speech given in 1952, by the Reverend Archibald Carey,1 who spoke at the 1952 Republican National Convention calling out the Democrats of the time who dragged their feet with regard to the civil rights, economic prosperity, and freedoms of Black Americans to enjoy the same as all Americans. He pointed out the tragedy of marginalized Black citizens being pummeled with empty promises and being left in a void of chaos created by policies and actions of the leading party of the day.
In 1962, Dr. King had been invited to Mount Olive Baptist Church, in Terrell County, Georgia, which had recently been burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan, to stay encouraged and vigilant in the growing struggle for civil rights. Before Dr. King delivered his speech, a 22 year old college student, and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteer, Prathia Hall, had been invited to pray.2 Ms. Hall, who was the daughter of a pastor, used the phrase, “I have a dream,” 3 throughout her powerful prayer and touched Dr. King in such a way that he began incorporating the phrase into his own sermons.
Dr. King remarked to an aide on the day of the March on Washington, that the speech he wanted to deliver would be “sort of a Gettysburg Address” and the original draft, titled, “Normalcy - Never Again,” originally contained no mention of the dreams that Dr. King held. In fact, it had been suggested by adviser, Wyatt Walker, that Dr. King not use references to dreams, calling it, “trite” and “cliché.”
Dr. King appeared to follow with the advice of his advisers until the 7th paragraph of the speech, when, according to Clarence Jones, Mahalia Jackson, who sang two songs at the podium immediately before Dr. King came up to speak, shouted from the right, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”
Mr. Jones stated that at that moment, said to a person sitting next to him that those in the audience were “about to go to church,” and “Normalcy – Never Again” was elevated through the use of trite and clichéd “dreams” to become the “I have a Dream” that we all know and love.
From the text of “I Have a Dream.” 4
Five score years ago…this momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves… [and] a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
…One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and… we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our 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 unalienable 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 the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.
Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
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.
My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!”
And when this happens… we will be able to speed up that day when all …will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!