While not everyone recognizes the varied matters of social justice — in addition to race — Martin Luther King Jr. peacefully crusaded for, one thing that is synonymous with the civil rights activist is his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of America’s most beloved speech. Even those who can recite lines from “I Have a Dream” might not be aware of all of the interesting facts surrounding King’s big moment:
1. The Dream Wasn’t Supposed to Be Part of the Speech
King had prepared another speech for the occasion that made no mention of the “dream.” Mid-speech, however, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell them about the dream!” Earlier in the week, Jackson had heard King discuss his dream for the future, and thought the crowd would benefit from hearing his vision. King promptly heeded Jackson’s request and switched gears to talk about his now-famous dream.
2. Much of the Speech Was Ad-Libbed
In switching to a dream-focused speech, King’s prepared notes were no longer of use. It’s hard to imagine that one of the world’s most highly regarded speeches was not scripted, but coming straight from the heart.
Of course, that fact might have also contributed to it being so powerful. Clarence Jones, who had collaborated with King to write the speech’s initial text, was so moved by King’s words that he wasn’t offended that his original work had been dropped on the spot. Jones noted, “I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day. It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body.”
3. Troops Prepared for Riots
The government expected the worst and arranged to have nearly 20,000 troops on standby should the day’s march get unruly. Local liquor stores were ordered to stay closed that day, an event that hadn’t occurred since Prohibition. Officials even rigged the audio system so that they could quickly cut King’s mic and switch to music if he were to say anything that might incite violence. None of these measures were necessary, however, as the day was entirely peaceful.
4. Many Missed His Actual Speech
He was the last person to speak, so many of the 200,000 people who had attended the day’s march had either already left or were in the process of leaving. After such a long day, organizers urged King to keep the speech to less than five minutes, although he wound up speaking for seventeen minutes.
5. The FBI Started Watching
After hearing the speech, the FBI went on high alert when it came to dealing with King. William Sullivan, head of domestic intelligence for the bureau, said, “In the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech… he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
The fact that FBI wiretapped King and collected evidence in order to discredit the man as a communist for the rest of his life is a good indication of what kind of frightening, oppressive agency the FBI actually is.
6. King Worried about this Dream
History may remember the speech as leading to swift change, but struggles continue. A couple of years later, King was no longer as optimistic about his “dream”, saying, “So often in these past two years I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare. I have felt my dream falter as I have traveled through the rat-infested slums of our big city ghettos and watched our jobless and hopeless poor sweltering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
7. Sharing the Speech Will Cost You
Despite the fact that the speech is now iconic, it is not part of the public domain. In a 1999 court case, the King family won copyright rights to the speech. For that reason, it can be difficult to track down copies of “I Have a Dream” or teach it in schools since it’s going to cost money. USA Today learned that the hard way when it posted a large excerpt of the speech and was charged a $1,700 licensing fee.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Photo Credit: USMC, Photo Credit: Dick DeMarsico, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Photo Credit: USMC, Photo Credit: Cecil Stoughton, Photo Credit: Marion Trikosko, Photo Credit: Athena LeTrelle via Flickr