Behind the Speech: MLK’s Lawyer Reveals Secrets of Crafting ‘I Have a Dream’

Aug 28, 2013 3:50pm

For a man who wanted to share his dream with millions, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared himself with only a select group of confidants. On the inside of that circle was Dr. Clarence Jones.

He was King’s lawyer and draft speechwriter, and as it would turn out, the man who helped craft King’s legacy speech.

In the weeks leading up to the march on Washington, where King would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, he and Jones had discussed some of the ideas that could be used to energize the crowd of nearly a quarter of a million people on the mall.

As the day grew near and thousands of buses, planes and trains arrived in the nation’s capital, King’s advisers weighed in on what he should say. Leaders from labor unions, civil rights groups and religious organizations lobbied their bullet points, while Jones took note, capturing their thoughts for King to review. Jones drafted an outline, and fleshed out points repeated during the meeting.

But as he shared his notes with the group, the attendees argued over Jones’ accuracy in note taking. According to Jones, King left the meeting, somewhat exasperated, notes in hand, and told the group he would counsel with the Lord before finishing his speech.

The following morning, Jones had no idea what was in the speech and whether King would use the material he’d written. As temperatures sweltered and speeches boomed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it came time for King’s speech, Jones listened intently for any signs of his work. As Jones recalls, those first few paragraphs sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until he would later see a printed version of the speech that he could confirm he had a hand in drafting the work.

But as King continued, a shout rang out from the front of the podium by famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream,” she shouted.

From there, King went off script, pushing aside his prepared remarks and recalled a spontaneous version of a previous speech, ‘I Have a Dream.’

Jones, about 50 feet from the podium, remarked that the crowd was about to go to church.

The audience, both on the Mall and watching on television, was magnetized. King’s words captured the emotion of the March on Washington and the phrase, “I have a dream,’ would eventually become the banner words for the civil rights movement.

For Jones, it was those four words that changed a country.

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