The Art of the Dream

There was a fascinating article in the Washington Post yesterday by Clarence B. Jones about the writing and delivery of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Jones was one of King’s advisers and also one of his speech writers. He drafted the speech King was to give on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. It was the speech King was to give, but as Jones points out, it was not the speech he gave. Not entirely.

Jones himself wrote the opening half, the half that (sadly) doesn’t get played much in school classrooms or written much in school textbooks. Partially because it’s less rhetorically magnificent than the rest and partially because it’s more pointed. Almost everybody can agree on King’s stirring call to brotherhood, to let freedom ring from every mountaintop. It’s harder to acknowledge, to take to heart, King’s indictment of American history and the American people, his talk about how the United States wrote the Negro people a bad check, and his assertion that they came to Washington that day to collect. It’s easy to get behind the call for freedom; it’s hard to realize your people are the ones who stood in the way. It’s easy to condemn the man who slaughters the pet lamb; it’s hard to realize that man is you.

Anyway. Jones wrote, and King delivered, a great and powerful first half of the speech that day. But as Jones points out, King then went off script. The actual “I Have a Dream” part? The part the world remembers? The part that’s etched into the soul of this nation? He winged it.

Go read the article. It’s a deeply moving first-hand account of a great man and a great moment in history, of the often historically forgotten tension, stress, debating, arguing, and editing that makes great men and women and great moments.

It’s also an amazing account of a moment of pure genius. He winged it. One of the greatest, most powerful speeches of all time was ad-libbed.

After I read Jones’s piece, I went back and watched the speech again on YouTube. I’ve probably heard it and seen it dozens of times, in school and on TV. Given it’s brilliant rhetoric, it’s stunning imagery, it’s perfect pace, it’s dramatic rise, I’d always assumed it had been written out, planned down to the last syllable and dramatic pause. I assumed it was a brilliant work of writing given voice by a great performer. But he winged it.

You can sort of tell, watching the speech after Jones’s piece. King’s eyes dart back and forth quickly, almost like they’re the gears of his brain as it works. The pauses and drawn-out words are for dramatic effect, of course, but they’re also moments when King is buying precious seconds, when his mind is racing ahead, forming the next sentence, the next idea. There’s the moment when he pauses before mentioning Alabama’s “vicious racists,” then pulls back. You can almost see his mind shift gears, away from condemnation and toward jubilation. It seems to me the same thing happens when he talks about freedom ringing from the mountaintops of New York, Pennsylvania, and California, then pauses and says it must ring, too, from the top of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, from every hill and molehill in Mississippi.

It’s exhilarating to watch. We all have those moments of inspiration, when our hands work faster than our brains, when everything just works. The “I Have a Dream” speech is more than just a moment of inspiration, though, it’s a moment of genius. We rarely get to see moments of genius as they happen. We rarely get to see the light bulb go off above someone’s head. Of course, in King’s case, it’s less a light bulb than a sun. We’re not just watching and listening to a great speech, we’re seeing one of the greatest speeches ever given as it’s being crafted, in the very moment of conception.

King was ready for it, of course. He was a brilliant speaker. He spent years speaking publicly and, probably more importantly as Jones points out, he’d been trained as a Baptist preacher, trained in a style of sermonizing built on flourish and jubilation, on ad-libbing, on seizing the moment and letting the Spirit carry you where it will.

King was ready, the Spirit was willing. And almost 50 years later, we can still watch it, still hear it, still get carried away ourselves in the moment when the dream was made.

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2 Comments

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  1. This makes me wonder if we will ever see this kind of genius ever again in our lives. If the age of brilliant public speaking and rhetoric is over and done with. That sounds a bit dramatic, I mean, surely we will see it again… right?, but I have a hard time believing that contemporary orators are EVER allowed let alone encouraged to go off script. And if they are, how many of them have the oratorical gifts to accomplish what King did?

    Information (ideas, passion, pleas) is just not conveyed the same way anymore. I hope I am wrong.

  2. I think it’s possible, I just think such moments require a rare confluence of qualities: a skilled orator with the ability to ad-lib, a historical movement that seems to reach a sort of crescendo (though this is really an illusion and is largely a media-driven narrative), and a historical sense that a certain speech embodies a certain historical movement or moment. So, we can’t really know right now what speeches we’ll value as much in the future. History does a lot of the heavy lifting there. I think it was a few years after 1863 that the Gettysburg Address was considered great.

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