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How Martin Luther King, Jr. Improvised ‘I Have A Dream’

The final draft of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech famously did not include the phrase “I have a dream.” Having worked on the August 28, 1963 speech with a close team of advisors all through the previous night, these four transformative words were an improvisation drawn from his previous speeches—”it had been used to great effect before, most recently during a June 1963 speech to 150,000 supporters in Detroit”—and a calling in the moment. From the History Channel:

“Around the halfway point of the speech, Mahalia Jackson implored him to ‘Tell ’em about the Dream, Martin.’ Whether or not King consciously heard, he soon moved away from his prepared text.”

march for jobs and freedom
Dr. King - March on Washington

Repeating the mantra, “I have a dream,” he offered up hope 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” and the desire to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

“And when this happens,” he bellowed in his closing remarks, “and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Related reading with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Did MLK Improvise in the ‘Dream’ Speech?

Hear Dr. King and fourth graders from Watkins Elementary School give his speech in a video on this site.

Plus: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembered.


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