Obama faces test on King’s ‘dream’ day

DENVER | On the eve of a speech that would forever reshape views on race in America, speechwriters huddled in a D.C. hotel and drafted seven crucial paragraphs.

The moment came not Wednesday night as Sen. Barack Obama prepared to accept his formal spot as the first black presidential nominee, but as Martin Luther King drafted his “I Have a Dream” speech to be delivered Aug. 28, 1963.

“The symbolism is very, very powerful,” said Clarence B. Jones, who served as a speechwriter and counsel to King. “Obama’s candidacy represents a transition across the bridge from the 20th-century legacy of segregation and institutional racism to a 21st-century society of color irrelevancy and multiracial constituencies.”

The historic anniversary provides mile-high expectations for Mr. Obama and his team of speechwriters, who are keenly aware of the date and his quest to become the nation’s first black president.

Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes - both under the age of 31 - head a team of speechwriters who have helped draft the addresses that played a large role in propelling Mr. Obama from long shot to nominee.

But when it comes to the big blockbusters - his speech Thursday, his convention address four years ago in Boston, his recent address in Berlin - Mr. Obama serves as his own chief writer.

“I can’t claim that I now write all of my own speeches, but the important ones, like 2004, I wrote,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in Northern Virginia this summer.

The author of two best-selling books, Mr. Obama spent all week fine-tuning the Thursday speech.

Mr. Jones, now a professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, remembers the evening 45 years ago as if it were yesterday.

Some time around 7 p.m., he sat with King at the Willard Hotel for a brainstorming session.

“I did a draft of themes. Little did I know the first seven paragraphs he actually adopted without change from what I had drafted,” Mr. Jones told The Washington Times in an interview.

He laughed, remembering that those paragraphs were among the few to survive.

“I watched as he looked out at the 250,000 or so people there and he grabbed both sides of the podium and turned the speech face down,” Mr. Jones said. “When I saw him do that, I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘These people here today don’t know, but they’re about ready to go to church.’”

Mr. Jones lauded King’s vision of an America where his four children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“He had the audacity of actually dreaming in 1963 of an America that, however the process would occur, would someday be able to rise above,” he said.

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About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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