By Clarence B. Jones
Sunday, January 16, 2011;
It was the late spring of 1963, and my friend Martin was exhausted. The campaign to integrate the public facilities in Birmingham had been successful but also tremendously taxing. In its aftermath, he wanted nothing more than to take Coretta and the children away for a vacation and forget - forget the looming book deadline, the office politics of his ever-growing Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the constant need to raise funds.
But a date for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had been nailed down - Aug. 28 - and Martin realized he couldn't plan such a massive undertaking with the usual endless interruptions. No, if this march were going to come together in time, he would have to escape all the distractions. (This was a man, after all, whose best writing was done inside a jail cell.) He needed to get away to a place where very few people could reach him.
That would be my house in Riverdale, N.Y.
For the previous three years, I had been an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., his personal lawyer and one of his speechwriters. Stanley Levison, another adviser who had done even more work with Martin on his speeches than I had, was also a New Yorker. Because of some dark ops on the part of the FBI, Martin could not deal directly with Stanley, yet he very much valued his advice, so it made sense for Martin to stay at my home and have me act as a go-between as we planned the March on Washington - and the speech Martin would deliver.
The logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us. Early in the summer, Martin asked some trusted colleagues at the SCLC for their thoughts on his address, and during his weeks in New York, we had discussions about it. But it wasn't until mid-August that Martin had Stanley and I work up a draft. And though I had that material with me when I arrived at the Willard Hotel in Washington for a meeting on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, Martin still didn't know what he was going to say.
We met in the lobby rather than in a suite, under the assumption that the lobby would be harder to wiretap. Tables, chairs and plants acted as a cordon of privacy. It was with this odd start, hiding in plain sight, that 12 hours before the March on Washington began, Martin gathered with a small group of advisers to hammer out the themes of his speech.
He had reacted well to the material Stanley and I had prepared, but he also knew that many of the march's supporters and organizers - labor unions, religious groups, community organizations and academic leaders - needed to be heard as well. So that evening he had a cross-section of advisers present to fill any blind spots. Cleveland Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Lawrence Reddick and I joined him, along with Wyatt Walker and Bayard Rustin, who were in and out of our deliberations.
As we ate sandwiches, our suggestions tumbled out. Everyone, it seemed, had a different take. Cleve, Lawrence and I saw the speech as an opportunity to stake an ideological and political marker in the debate over civil rights and segregation. Others were more inclined for Martin to deliver a sort of church sermon, steeped in parables and Bible quotes. Some, however, worried that biblical language would obfuscate the real message - reform of the legal system. And still others wanted Martin to direct his remarks to the students, black and white, who would be marching that day.
Martin got frustrated trying to keep everything straight, so he asked me to take notes. I quickly realized that putting together these various concepts into a single address would be difficult. Martin would have to take one approach - his own - with the other ideas somehow supporting his larger vision. I kept on taking notes, wondering how someone would turn all this into a cohesive speech. As it turned out, that would be my task.
Eventually, Martin looked to me and said, "Clarence, why don't you excuse yourself and go upstairs. You can summarize the points made here and return with an outline."
I sat in my room, flipping through the scrawled pages of the yellow legal pad, struggling to boil down everyone's perspectives. The idea of urging the crowd to take specific actions, as opposed to a general kind of complaining, seemed one area of agreement. (The march's organizing manual even had a headline that spelled it out: "What We Demand.")
A conversation that I'd had during the Birmingham campaign with then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or a check for justice. From there, a proposed draft took shape.
And the words "I have a dream" were nowhere in it.
About an hour later, I took my writing back to the lobby and began presenting it to the group. Immediately the others interrupted:
"What about - "
"Why didn't you - "
"I thought we agreed - "
They were all over me. And given the fact that several were Baptist preachers, there was no small amount of grandstanding. I began defending myself, but Martin intervened. "Okay, brothers," he said, "thank you so much everybody for your suggestions and input. . . . I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord."
He walked quietly toward the elevators, leaving the rest of us to look at each other. "Tomorrow, then," someone said, and we dispersed.
Tomorrow, as history would record, turned out to be an enormous success. The weather and the massive crowd were in sync - both calm and warm for the March on Washington. Even the D.C. Metropolitan Police, which had been bracing for a race riot, had nothing to complain about.
I remember when it was all over but the final act. As I stood some 50 feet behind the lectern, march Chairman A. Philip Randolph introduced Martin, to wild applause, as "the moral leader of our nation." And I still didn't know how Martin had pulled the speech together after our meeting.
After Martin greeted the people assembled, he began his speech, and I was shocked when these words quickly rolled out:
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.
Martin was essentially reciting the opening suggestions I'd handed in the night before. This was strange, given the way he usually worked over the material Stanley and I provided. When he finished the promissory note analogy, he paused. And in that breach, something unexpected, historic and largely unheralded happened. Martin's favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the day, called to him from nearby: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream!"
Martin clutched the speaker's lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the person next to me, "These people out there today don't know it yet, but they're about ready to go to church."
What could possibly motivate a man standing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, with television cameras beaming his every move and a cluster of microphones tracing his every word, to abandon the prepared text of his speech and begin riffing on a theme that he had used previously without generating much enthusiasm from listeners?
Before our eyes, he transformed himself into the superb, third-generation Baptist preacher that he was, and he spoke those words that in retrospect feel destined to ring out that day:
I have a dream . . .
In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I've ever met could improvise better.
The speech went on to depart drastically from the draft I'd delivered, and I'll be the first to tell you that America is the better for it. As I look back on my version, I realize that nearly any confident public speaker could have held the crowd's attention with it. But a different man could not have delivered "I Have a Dream."
Some believe, though the facts are otherwise, that Martin was such a superlative writer that he never needed others to draft material for him. I understand that belief; fate made Martin a martyr and a unique American myth - and myths stand alone. But admitting that even this unequaled writer had people helping him hardly takes anything away. People like Stanley, Mahalia and I helped him maximize his brilliance. If not, why would Mahalia interrupt a planned address? She wasn't unhappy with the material he was reading - she just wanted him to preach.
That he did. You only have to hear the recording of even a handful of the words from his speech and, for the rest of your life, when you read it you will hear his signature cadence. Can you hear it now?
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!
The crowd was rapt. Tears of joy fell everywhere. And when Martin ended with a cried refrain from a spiritual that predated the Emancipation Proclamation, the sense of history - past and future - struck me full force:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
More than 40 years later, I was invited to visit Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute as a candidate for an academic post. I met with the director, who knew I had just started work on a book about Martin and wanted to convince me that I should write it there. To demonstrate the wealth of the institute's research materials, he had me choose a date from the years I had worked with Martin.
I offered Aug. 28, 1963.
One of the staffers soon brought in a cardboard box with papers related to that day. Among them was a copy of the program that had been handed out at the march. At the time, no one could possibly understand the emotional impact this had on me. It was the standard program except for one corner, where it bore a handwritten note to Martin - from me.
"Dear Martin - just learned that Dr. W.E.B. Dubois died last night in Ghana. Someone should make note of this fact."
I was looking at a copy of my own program, something I'd urgently written on and passed through the crowd to Martin up on the dais. Tears welled in my eyes as I imagined its long journey from my hand to the institute's files. I felt Martin, my friend, reaching out and saying to me, "Keep our dream alive."
That is what this country does every January on Martin Luther King Day. I am hopeful that sometime soon, it will be what we do every day of the year.
Adapted from "Behind the Dream" by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly. Copyright 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.
Clarence B. Jones, a scholar in residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, is a co-author, with Stuart Connelly, of the new book "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation," from which this essay is adapted.
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