On a hot, humid summer day fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ascended into the pantheon of America’s national heroes when he delivered an oration for the ages.
The March on Washington was a momentous moment in the long, hot summer of America’s discontent. Racial strife was widespread, sometimes officially condoned, and often violent. The March marked the coming of age of the Civil Rights Movement as a genuine national phenomenon. While many in official Washington expected violence, 250,000 people, black and white, gathered peacefully on the National Mall, demanding “jobs and freedom.”
It should be remembered that on August 28, 1963 it was not Dr. King’s march, and he was not even the featured speaker, but one of many. In a few remarkable minutes, Dr. King’s speech permanently changed the Civil Rights Movement and altered the course of history.
Dr. King began his speech, working from a prepared text, something he usually did not do. As a Baptist preacher, he far more often extemporaneously wove together from memory segments of previous sermons and speeches, assembling them in differing and often new ways from speech to speech.
The speech was going well, but it was, as Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch noted, “far from historic.” The great singer Mahalia Jackson cried out, “Tell’em about the dream, Martin!”
Whether Dr. King heard her or a higher power of inspiration, he did just that. Abandoning whole sections of his prepared text, Dr. King began sharing the dream, using terminology he had employed several times in the previous year, mostly in pulpits, but never before a national audience.