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‘Tell them about the dream, reverend’: How Mahalia Jackson triggered Martin Luther King’s iconic moment


Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

Everywhere, every day there are politicians inflicting lengthy word salads on us that have no meaning and will not last 60 seconds let alone 60 years. The speech is made because there is an assumption that a speech must be made and that it must be worthy and lengthy.

Three score years ago in Washington DC, Rev Martin Luther King Jr delivered what was to become one of the most resonant and famous speeches ever made. Very few, anywhere, do not connect King now with the ringing words he used before a crowd of more than 200,000 on 28 August 1963: “I have a dream.”

But there’s a back story to that speech which intrigues me and which carries lessons of history and of how to make a good speech.

King, as he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to address the hordes who had come to the capital to demand equal rights, consciously was setting out to channel Abraham Lincoln’s legendary Gettysburg Address made in 1863 which began, as every American schoolkid knows: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

King’s opening words were: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

But these finely crafted words, and those that followed, did not land well. King was the tenth speaker on a long and hot day, none of whom had come close to respecting the five-minute time limit. The crowds were tired and ready to begin the tough journey home, most to the South.

And King’s prepared text, distributed in advance to reporters, did not include any reference to “the dream”. The speech had been crafted by a group of activists the night before and one of King’s closest advisers, Wyatt Walker, reportedly implored him not to mention “the dream” because he’d used it too many times before and it had become, in Walker’s view, “trite”.

It is common cause that as King got towards the end of his speech it was not having the impact he’d hoped for, and that gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, shouted from behind him “tell them about the dream reverend, tell them about the dream”.

At which point King scrapped his text and soared, with the rhythm of hymns, into the five-minute, 280-word sequence that would live in history, beginning: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, 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.”

Guardian correspondent Gary Younge in his book ‘The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream’ reports that, as King went off script, Wyatt Walker said: “Aw, shit, he’s using the dream.”

King finished with the resounding lines: “And when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, 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.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fifty years after The March on Washington, a dream remains a dream

Slow resonance

The speech did land powerfully with many, including President Kennedy who was watching on television, but it did not achieve instant icon status. Incredibly, neither of the major Washington papers, The Post and The Star, even reported King’s words in their extensive coverage. In this sense, The Dream Speech shares a similar fate to the Gettysburg Address which largely passed unheard by the crowd and unnoticed by reporters when Lincoln delivered it.

But one of the young journalists covering the events on the Washington Mall 60 years ago, Carl Bernstein, who was later to achieve fame for his work on Watergate, understood what he had seen: “For me, listening to Dr King’s speech, with its emotive power, and witnessing the sheer numbers of black and white people marching together, I was certain I had experienced the most powerful moment of my lifetime — the ‘someday’ from We Shall Overcome was drawing nearer.”

There are so many lessons from King’s epic speech.

Words for words’ sake

Everywhere in the world, every day there are politicians inflicting lengthy word salads on us that have no meaning and will not last 60 seconds in the memory let alone three score years. The speech is made because there is an assumption that a speech must be made and that it must be worthy and lengthy and that it must not offend or disrupt. The words are usually written by third parties and the person delivering them is often seeing them for the first as they speak them, and it shows. It’s a meaningless and demeaning dance.

King’s prepared speech lacked verbal impact precisely because it was prepared. The minute he became himself and moved into familiar but unscripted territory, it achieved huge resonance. Nelson Mandela was a prime example of this. I sat through several appallingly dull, hesitantly delivered, scripted speeches by Madiba waiting, always, for the moment when he’d dutifully finished what others had written for him and then began extemporising, at which point, without fail, he would light up the room.

It’s not given to many to be a soaring orator like Martin Luther King. Another preacherman, Dr Allan Boesak, was probably the closest we ever had. However flawed he undoubtedly was, Boesak could move crowds in magnificent ways.

But if you cannot be King or Boesak, you can be brief.

The Dream Speech, in its entirety, is 17 minutes long. The impactful parts are less than six minutes. The Gettysburg Address, probably the most profound definition of democracy ever delivered, was only three minutes in total or just 272 words. In that time most of our politicians haven’t even concluded the Byzantine protocols of welcoming every half-baked dignitary, which is a decidedly Orwellian habit (making sure everyone knows that while everyone is equal some are more equal than others).  

I have a dream that politicians will do more listening and less speaking, but when they do speak they will understand that no one has ever said “I wish they’d spoken for longer”. DM


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