- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Late on the night before the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the nation’s capital from two days on the road. Sealing himself off in his suite at the Willard Hotel, he began to write his speech for the next day, Aug. 28, 1963.

His final result was a mixture of truncated oratory and fresh composition. The prepared speech was politically sound but far from historic, nimble in some streaks while clubfooted through others. King gave his handwritten draft for typing and reproduction just as a picket line was ending its all-night vigil at the Justice Department.

The next day at the Washington Monument staging area, great masses of people stepped off toward the Lincoln Memorial long ahead of schedule.

At noon, nearly two hours before the rally began, police estimated the crowd at more than 200,000. Friendly observers argued plausibly that late arrivals and high density justified talk of 300,000, and the usual effusions ran it upward to 500,000.

A long procession of speakers participated in the three-hour program. The sun-drenched crowd had been reduced to restless fatigue by the time Mahalia Jackson was brought out.

Her first notes were a cry from the deepest wellsprings of culture. The song was “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned,” a spiritual born of the slave experience, but Miss Jackson managed also to stir emotions irresistible to whites. People fumbled for handkerchiefs, and responsive cries chased the echoes of her a cappella voice through the cavernous outdoors.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress followed Miss Jackson to the microphone. There were scattered cries for Dr. King, who was next and last. People ached to stretch limbs and escape sunstroke.

When King was introduced as “the moral leader of our nation,” small waves of applause lapped forward for nearly a minute in tribute to the best-known leader among them as well as to the end of a joyous day.

Then the crowd fell silent.

It was a formal speech, as demanded by the occasion and the nature of the audience. King delivered it in his clearest diction and stateliest baritone. Ovations interrupted him, and in difficult passages small voices cried “Yes” and “Right on.”

Five minutes later, when King declared the movement would not stop “as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and hotels of the cities,” a shout went up from a pocket of the crowd so distant that the sound did not reach King for a second or two.

He recited his text verbatim until a short run near the end: “We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The crowd responded to the pulsating emotion transmitted from the prophet Amos, and King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared text, which by contrast opened its lamest and most pretentious section: “And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.”

Instead, extemporaneously, he urged them to return to their struggles: (“Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama… “), to believe that change would come “somehow” and that they could not “wallow in the valley of despair.”

There was no alternative but to preach.

Knowing he had wandered completely off his text, some of those behind him on the platform urged him on, and Mahalia Jackson piped up, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”

Whether her words reached him is not known.

Later, King said only that he forgot the rest of the speech and took up the first run of oratory that “came to me.”

After the word “despair,” he temporized for an instant: “I say to you today, my friends, and so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream… .”

The slow determination of his cadence exposed all the more clearly the passion that overshadowed the content of the dream. It went beyond the limitations of language and culture to express something that was neither pure rage nor pure joy, but a universal transport of the kind that makes the blues sweet.

The “Dream” sequence took him from Amos to Isaiah, ending, “I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted… .”

Then he spoke a few sentences from the prepared conclusion, but within seconds he was off again, reciting the first stanza of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” ending, ” ‘from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’ ”

After an interlude of merely one sentence — “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true” — he took it up again, “So let freedom ring.”

By then, Mahalia Jackson was happy, chanting “My Lord. My Lord.”

As King tolled the freedom bells from New Hampshire to California and back across Mississippi, his solid, square frame shook and his stateliness barely contained the push to an end that was old to King but new to the world:

“And when this happens… we will be able to speed up that day when all 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.’ ”

With that King stepped suddenly aside, and the March tumbled swiftly to a benediction.

Meanwhile, like most television viewers, President Kennedy was witnessing a complete King speech for the first time. “He’s damn good,” the president remarked to his aides at the White House.

Kennedy was especially impressed with King’s ad lib off the prepared text, and he was quick to pick out the most original refrain. As the principal leaders filed into the Cabinet Room from the march, Kennedy greeted King. With a smile, Kennedy said to him, “I have a dream.”

The “Dream” sequence stamped King’s public identity. The emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.

It was a fitting joke on the races that he achieved such statesmanship by setting aside his lofty text to let loose and jam, as he did regularly from 200 podiums a year.

Taylor Branch won a Pulitzer Prize for history in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” the first book in his projected trilogy titled “America in the King Years” (Simon & Schuster). The second volume, “Pillar of Fire,” was published in 1998, and the third, “At Canaan’s Edge,” is due in 2004.

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