Martin Luther King March on Washington 1963
Martin Luther King – March on Washington 1963

It is still, 55 years after it was given, one of the finest and most important speeches of all time. Martin Luther King’s address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28 1963. The one where he told us about his dream of a future without the segregation and racism that had for so long been a poison in the marrow of America.

“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.”

It is a superb piece of public speaking. Rousing, inspirational, an insightful diagnosis of a deep social ill, and an irresistible call to stand strong and help administer the cure. “I have a dream” is one of the greatest examples of the language of leadership, so absent from public discourse in the 21st century.

But it’s not the speech Dr King intended to give that day. One of the 20th century’s most memorable, most important moments, might never have happened – save for a shout of encouragement from a gospel singer called Mahalia Jackson.

The “I have a dream” stanzas make up just under five of the 16 minutes Dr King took to deliver the speech. If you’ve never seen or heard the rest, it was a fine speech from a gifted public speaker. His remarks haven’t aged – they’re still as relevant in Trump’s America as they were in the nation presided over by JFK.

“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

Martin Luther King said his people were no better off in 1963, 100 years after President Lincoln emancipated the slaves. The promise of American democracy, he said, was being denied to part of the population because of their skin colour. Black people had arrived at this moment ready to stand up for their rights, and against the violence and oppression routinely inflicted upon them. There would be no turning back, no business-as-usual after this day. The road to justice might yet be long, but continuing to enforce segregation damaged everyone, no matter their colour. Dr King had long believed that blacks and whites are tied up together in the same garment of destiny, and unity is their only way forward.

Mahalia Jackson sings at the March On Washington
Mahalia Jackson sings at the March On Washington

The speech had been good, and well-received. And it seemed to be nearing a conclusion. Dr King had been speaking from notes on a lectern in front of him. And then something unexpected happened. The great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was seated nearby on the stage. She’d been one of the artists invited to perform at the rally – Mahalia was a close friend of Dr King, and a determined supporter of the civil rights movement.

Sensing the occasion demanded something deeper, more abiding, she called out to Dr King during a momentary pause. “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”

“Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”

Mahalia Jackson was referring to a theme Dr King had used in a speech at least once before. Two months earlier, in Detroit, he’d spoken publicly about his dreams of a better future – but not in such detail or soaring language. It had been a small ingredient in that Detroit speech, but Mahalia knew of it, and was certain it needed to be heard again, in greater detail, by this vast Washington crowd.

Martin Luther King heard her call, moved his notes aside and began to improvise, speaking of his abiding dream, one he still believed was deeply rooted in the American dream. And then he began to enumerate the elements of that dream: equality, an oasis of freedom and justice, hewing a stone of hope from a mountain of despair. It’s delivered in mesmerising rhythm, electrifying cadences, the language of an Old Testament prophet certain his vision will come to pass. All improvised, right there in front of a quarter of a million people. And all because his favourite gospel singer urged him to “tell them about the dream”.

“It is as if on that day some cosmic transcendental force came down and took over Martin King’s body….. It was like I was watching lightning in a bottle.”

Dr King’s long-time lawyer and adviser, Clarence B Jones, had helped him write the speech. Clarence knew what was going to be in it, and the “dream” sequence was not part of it. He was up on the stage when Mahalia called for Martin Luther King’s dream. His recollection is electrifying.

James Reston said in the New York Times the following day that “it will be a long time before Washington forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude.” Even in the time of Trump, I am sure Dr King’s voice, his vision, rings out yet from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, to be heard around the world.

Music was high on the list of things from which Dr King and his supporters drew strength and comfort. Enjoy this playlist of songs that inspired and sustained the civil rights movement .

This is an online version of a piece for the ABC Digital Radio show It’s Just Not Cricket with Glynn Greensmith – scheduled for Saturday April 7. 



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