Martin Luther King: How the dream speech wasn’t planned

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It was one of the most famous speeches ever made and led to two major pieces of Civil Rights legislation in the USA.

Yet, in issue 1277 of the Big Issue, author Philip Collins tells how Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” on August 28th 1963 in The Mall, Washington DC, wasn’t planned as it happened.

Dr King had been speaking about his “dream” on several occasions around the country, prior to the big event when 250,000 piled into The Mall to watch a succession of speakers and singers, for whom Dr King provided the finale.

Philip Collins tells us:

When Dr King’s advisers gathered to help him write the speech they were all adamant on one thing – on no account was he to do the dream speech.

Instead, the speech had working titles such as “Normalcy, Never again” and “A cancelled check”. Indeed, Dr King explored the check (cheque) theme in the first few minutes of his speech, without exactly setting the audience alight:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Then as the audience became rather bored after long journies and a very hot day, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, on stage behind Martin Luther King, whispered to him:

Tell ‘m about the dream, Martin.

So he went off on his dream riff, causing one of his team to mutter:

Aww shit, he’s doing the dream.

But the dream sequence fired up the audience and made history.

You can read Philip Collins’ article in issue 1277 of Big Issue. The article trails his new book “When They Go Low We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them“.

This post is another of our contributions for Black History Month.

Finally, here is that “Dream” speech in full:

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Paul, thank you so much for posting that. It means so very much to me than I can ever say.

    At the time I heard it all live on British television as a Young Liberal back in 1963 with my late Mum and Dad. All three of us wept and I feel like weeping now, not for my lost youth (I’m still 21 inside my head), but for the lost inspiration that was Dr. King. He sealed my radical zeal then, and watching it all again now, it still has the power to move and inspire.

    Freedom requires a diminution of inequality. That’s what Dr King taught me then, and watching the video, he teaches it all over again now.

    Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were there that day – and they are still with us today. Sadly my hero Pete Seeger is no longer with us – but he is still our voice.

    Pete Seeger – We shall overcome – YouTube

  • His later speech against the Vietnam war struck a chord with me; even more than his ‘Dream’ speech…
    This was a poor man’s war where the wealthy (Trump, Bush, etc.) could avoid the draft..
    His linking of how money can always be found for a war at the expense of programmes for the poor has a resonance today with Iraq, Libya and Syria (to say nothing of Boris Johnson’s promise of support of possible US action in Korea)…Thank heaven Wilson was able to keep us out of that lost cause…

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Oct '17 - 11:50pm

    Paul and David, at it again, getting me at it too , with much thanks !

    A remarkable story , the unplanned speech, don,t ever forget another great from the same era, Judy Garland, sang the most uplifting song of that time, and one of hopefulness having come through depression, and the world on the brink of war,
    Somewhere Over The Rainbow, in The Wizard of Oz, but the movies ow makers, wanted to cut it , as it slowed down the story !!!

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 21st Oct '17 - 8:33am

    Paul, thank you for this article, and for your fascinating and moving series of articles for black history month.
    This story about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and also the story Lorenzo mentions about the song “Over the Rainbow”, remind me of the piece of advice that is often given to aspiring writers, the piece of advice that is sometimes referred to as “murder your darlings”. The aspiring writer is often advised : if you have written something that you especially love, that perhaps has special personal meaning for you, but then an editor advises you that this piece of writing does not fit well with the rest of the novel, poem or speech, is not “essential” to it, and perhaps “slows it down”, then you should take this advice, and cut it, ruthlessly. This advice has led many aspiring writers to doubt themselves, and must have led to many wonderful pieces of writing being lost to the world. It ignores the fact that the bits that “slow down the action”, or “do not quite fit”, are often the bits that we most remember long after we have finished the book, watched the film, or listened to the speech.
    Those who advised Martin Luther King not to include “The Dream”, may have thought that it did not fit well with the theme of the bad cheque, and insufficient funds in the bank of justice, etc. They did not stop to think that perhaps it was the “bad cheque” aspect of the speech that could have been cut.
    If Martin Luther King had just made the “cancelled cheque” speech as planned, it would have been a good speech, but it would not have been a great one. It would not have inspired a generation. It’s unlikely that people would be still quoting the “cancelled cheque speech” today. But by deciding, after all, to cherish, instead of “murdering” his “darling”, Martin Luther King shared his dream with a generation, and future generations, made it their dream too, and made that dream come far closer to becoming reality.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Oct '17 - 1:17pm


    You always come up with the right tone and response and , here you are excelling at it !

    That phrase is indeed one I am aware of in writing , a film and musical.

    Anyone creative in any context is best to listen to their own advice most often.

    Sometimes even politicians could use the same advice. Too much attention to paid advice , not enough to their own members, and more, to their own conscience.

  • Sue Sutherland 21st Oct '17 - 2:56pm

    He showed us his heart that day.

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