The Story Behind “I Have a Dream” Speech

This past Monday, our nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day. The day is a moment to recall how far we have come as a country and to reflect on how far we still have to go in dealing with racism. If the United States has a legacy sin – it is racism. The greatest speech Dr. King was known for giving is the “I Have a Dream” speech. Surprisingly, it did not become a defining speech of his legacy until after his death. With time, the “I Have A Dream” speech has grown in significance and impact.

Many people don’t know that the “I Have a Dream” part of the speech was not originally included in the prepared text for his speech at The Freedom March on Washington in 1963. It would be the first time the nation would hear a full speech given by Dr. King. The civil rights movement’s introduction to the entire country was riding on this event and Dr. King’s shoulders. 

It would also be the first time that President John F. Kennedy would hear a full speech delivered by Dr. King. And President Kennedy would remark later how good of a speech and delivery it was. All three television networks were covering the event.

It had been a long day, and like most big events, there were dozens of speakers and singers, and Dr. King was scheduled at the end of the long list of speakers on that hot day in August. The crowd had grown tired and numb after so many speakers and a long day.

Dr. King started the speech with his prepared text. Many of Dr. King’s closest advisors thought the speech was good, but not as moving or as powerful as speeches he had given before. As Dr. King reached an inflection point in his prepared remarks, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was behind Dr. King, yelled out, “Tell’em about the dream, Martin.”

At that moment, knowing he was not connecting with the audience, Dr. King went extemporaneous and delivered parts of the “I Have a Dream” speech that he had used several times during the past months. If you watch a video of the speech, you can see when he goes off his prepared remarks. Dr. King did what great leaders do and understand – he pivoted.

It was a moment when things were not working or going as planned, and something had to change. Leaders understand those moments, they can sense them, and they dare to pivot at the most crucial time. The preacher in Dr. King came out that day, and the cadence and rhythm of a Black Baptist preacher would deliver a speech that has now become part of our history and a touchstone on race and equality.

Dr. King understood leading and when to pivot, and it has made all the difference.