How Mahalia Jackson Inspired MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

How Mahalia Jackson Inspired MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

We all were taught in school about how Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Had a Dream.” But what if he didn’t always have a dream? At least, not as we know it today.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King uttered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. King delivered that speech to more than 200,000 faces to mark that day’s equally famous occasion, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his speech, King remarked how he dreamed that “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” in a unified nation, regardless of skin color, background, age or size.

However, there is far more to this speech than meets the eye.

One overlooked and, for some, unknown fact about King’s masterpiece of a speech is that the March on Washington was not the first place where he delivered this beloved speech. Masterpieces don’t happen overnight, certainly not in first drafts. As with any other speech, regardless if it’s delivered by a student in front of their peers for class or by a leader in front of millions of followers, the “I Have a Dream” speech went through multiple drafts prior to being spoken on stage in its final form. In fact, some of the earliest drafts of that speech did not include a direct reference to the word “dream,” let alone King having one.

Of course, King at least alluded to having a dream in early drafts. Having dreams had become a recurring theme in many of his speeches, even as early as 1960 when he delivered a speech to the NAACP called, “The Negro and the American Dream.” In that speech, King took a similar stance to what he’d proclaim four years later on the Lincoln Monument, this time directed in reference to the American Dream and how he believed it had been sullied by racism. Cleary, he always, had a deep fascination with the idea of a dream, in regards to visions of the future and portraits of the past, and the sentiment can be found in previous drafts. But early drafts of the “I Have a Dream” speech do not actually contain the phrase, “I have a dream.”

The original title of the speech was, “Normalcy, Never Again.” Drew Hansen’s book “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” even describes an early draft of the speech being called, “Cashing a Cancelled Check.” That name, as expressed in Emily Crocket’s piece for Vox, was in reference to a metaphor that didn’t make the final cut of the speech, which King would have discussed how America failed to deliver on a “bad check,” or promise of freedom for Black Americans. During the drafting process, King was torn between focusing on either that or the theme of a dream. Obviously, as readers know now, he settled on the latter, as his dream still resonated throughout each draft — even without ever saying the word directly on paper.

Except in the final draft that is. In previous drafts — and even previous speaking events where he practiced his speech in front of an audience — the dream remained intact, but interestingly enough, as he stood at his podium, his notes didn’t have a direct mention of a dream.

Multiple parties in King’s camp, primarily advisers Clarence B. Jones and Stanley Levison, offered their contributions during the writing process for the speech. Hours before his speech was delivered, at a point in which King still had no final call on what he’d be talking about, his camp convinced him to discard any mention of a dream from his speech. As Rachel Chang said best for Biography, “…he didn’t think it was worth dwelling on the dream on that hot summer’s day in the nation’s capital. In fact, the dream wasn’t mentioned in the notes that laid on top of the podium and it wasn’t in the plans for that day.”

However, the greatest contribution to King’s speech, the actual “I have a dream” phrase, came from an unexpected place: the mouth of an esteemed gospel singer.

Mahalia Jackson is best remembered today as a three-time Grammy winner and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, but in 1964, King knew her as a close friend. The two first met in 1956 at the National Baptist Convention in Alabama, during which King would convince Jackson to perform for those sitting in at the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In private, Jackson proved to be a special confidante to King in times of doubt. He’d often call her just to hear her sing over the phone whenever he was at his lowest. Meanwhile, in public, she frequently travelled with him and would perform songs to masses of crowds right before King was set to deliver one of his highly anticipated speeches. 

The March on Washington was no different, as Jackson— nicknamed the Queen of Soul (preceding Aretha Franklin, whom Jackson mentored) — performed “I’ve Been Buked” mere moments before MLK stepped forward in front of thousands.

Jackson remained in attendance, just as she was in attendance for previous readings and previous drafts of King’s speech before he performed the real deal. She knew these early drafts well enough to know of his previous allusions to the dreams he was having, despite discarding them from his final draft. So naturally, he was caught a little off guard when, in the middle of his speech, he heard Jackson belt out — not even 50 feet away from him — “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” 

In his surprise, King paused in his steps for a moment, but in being the skillful preacher and orator that he was born to be, he carried on as planned, only a little more spontaneously. Almost on cue, King would actually utter the words, for the first time that, “I have a dream.” The rest of the speech, as they say, is history.

“I noticed, when she shouts to him, that he looks at her in real time, momentarily,” the aforementioned adviser Jones said looking back on it. “But he takes the text of the written speech that he prepared and he slides it to the left side of the lectern. Grabs the lectern, looks out on more than 250,000 people, and I turn to the person standing next to me … I said, ‘these people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.'”

And take them to church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did. All thanks to Mahalia Jackson.

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