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"Tell Them About the Dream, Martin": The Story Behind Dr. King's Historic Speech

In his address to the huge crowd gathered on Aug. 28, 1963, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of the most electrifying and inspiring speeches in world history. But its most famous passages – those most often quoted to this day – were largely improvised, proof of the great civil rights leader’s oratory genius and the passion of his convictions.
According to Drew Hansen, author of “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation,” King had used some of the “I have a dream” language in previous speeches, but the words were nowhere to be found in what was supposed to be the final draft of the D.C. address. Faced with a time constraint, King had made up his mind to stick to some key points about the “sacred obligation” of social justice and the need to “make real the promise of democracy.” He employed a powerful metaphor, declaring that African-Americans had been given “a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,'” and spoke of the “fierce urgency of the Now,” the need to move forward and act immediately, “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood … [and] to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Martin Luther King in D.C.
Dr. Martin Luther King at the civil rights rally in Washington, D.C..

But as he neared the end of the speech, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting off to one side as he spoke, called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
“All of a sudden,” King said in a later interview, “this thing came to me that I have used — I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.”
The split-second decision to veer away from his prepared text was a momentous one. His next words would inspire not only the tens of thousands of people in his audience, but millions around the world and every generation to follow.
In honor of the great man’s memory and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we share those words here:
“And 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.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today!
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“I have a dream today!
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’
“This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
“And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
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.
“And 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.
“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
“Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
“But not only that:
“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
“Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
“Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to 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!”

Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. Email him at rick.hynum@hottytoddy.com.

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