Backstage pass at the March on Washington

Martin Luther King and his advisers agonized over his 'I have a dream' speech the night of Aug. 27, 1963

Martin Luther King Jr. gives a press conference outside the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala., February, 1963. Standing behind King's right shoulder is his speechwriter Clarence B. Jones.
Ernst Haas/Hulton/Getty Images

Aug. 27, 1963 — Clarence B. Jones couldn’t prove they were being watched by the government, but he knew one thing for sure: As public as the Willard Hotel’s lobby was, it would have to be much more difficult to wiretap than a hotel suite. Jones told a bellman they wanted some privacy. Waitstaff hustled. Tables, chairs and planters were pressed into service, now acting as cordons. And it was with this odd beginning, 12 hours before the March on Washington would start, that Martin Luther King Jr. hid in plain sight for a meeting with his inner circle on the theme of his speech.

Many of the lines of dialogue nailed down in cold type by illegal FBI wiretaps came from the lips of Clarence Jones, my co-author on the book "Behind the Dream" (now out as an audiobook in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom). So his paranoia on the eve of the march was well-founded. King’s suite at the Willard wasn't bugged -- but almost surely not for lack of trying.

If you have ever heard of Jones, it is likely in connection with his call for a Democratic primary challenge to Barack Obama that riled the Internet late in the president’s first term. The controversy sprang from Jones' moral authority. Because of his eight-year relationship with King, acting as lawyer, adviser and draft speechwriter, he has a direct connection to the civil rights movement's lasting legacy. A stalwart of the desegregation struggle calling out the nation's first African-American president? Yeah, that’s going to get even a man who prefers the shadows of history a little time in the spotlight. But Jones isn't the kind of guy to stick to party lines or judge a man by the color of his skin, even favorably.

Back in the late summer of 1963, of course, the idea of an African-American president in anybody's lifetime would have seemed outlandish, a fantasy not even worth considering. Back then, they were clamoring for something a little less lofty: simple dignity and justice.

'Return with an outline'

King did not wait until the eve of the march to think about the nature of his remarks. He had a deep reservoir of material from his previous speeches. In addition, earlier that summer, before deadline pressures became intense, he asked some trusted colleagues for their thoughts. Then he and Jones had more detailed discussions during the three weeks the King family spent at Jones' house in the Bronx (which was in fact wiretapped). King had Jones and another close associate, Stanley Levison, draft what they thought King should cover. But the March steering committee was bigger than King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference; labor unions, religious groups, community organizations and academic leaders all had a hand in it. King believed that getting views from a cross section of his advisers would smooth out any bias in favor of one insular group.

King told Cleveland Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Lawrence Reddick, Bayard Rustin and Jones that he wanted the best thinking regarding the theme of his speech. Suggestions tumbled out. It seemed everyone had a different take. King tried his best to keep things straight but soon became frustrated. He asked Jones to take notes. He tried to keep track of all the information being offered, discussed and debated. Jones knew putting together these various concepts would be difficult. How would they cohere? King would have to take one approach -- his own -- with the rest of the ideas working in support of the larger theme's framework. Jones kept taking notes, all the while wondering how someone would turn all these ideas into a cohesive speech. What he didn't realize is that he would be that someone.

King eventually looked at Jones and said, "Clarence, why don't you excuse yourself and go upstairs? You can summarize the points made here and return with an outline."

The debate

So here now was another draft of history: Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at the March on Washington on flipped pages of a legal pad. Jones sat in his room, struggling to summarize everyone’s points. He took out the material he prepared with Levison and re-examined it. He checked the notes from the group downstairs. The idea of urging the crowd to take specific actions, as opposed to encouraging a general kind of complaining, seemed to be one area of agreement. The march's organizing manual even had a headline that spelled it out: "What We Demand." Jones' run-in earlier that year with then–New York governor Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African-Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or check for justice. From there, a proposed draft quickly took shape.

King pushed the text of his prepared marks to one side and surrendered to the spirit of the moment.

Jones took his writing back to the lobby, where he summarized his proposed approach. Immediately the other men chimed in (from Behind the Dream):

They were all over me. One man after another claimed that either I had left out an important concept that had been made during the earlier discussion or had inaccurately summarized what had been said about any of a dozen particular points. And given the fact that several of the men there were Baptist preachers, there was no small amount of grandstanding and finger-wagging.

Jones began defending his efforts, but King intervened. "OK, brothers," he said. "Thank you so much, everybody, for your suggestions and input." He thanked Jones and told him someone would be in touch when the speech was finished. "I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord."

'Tell 'em about the dream!'

The march the next day turned out to be an enormous success. The air and the people were both warm. Even the D.C. police, ready for a race riot, had nothing to complain about.

The only question on people’s minds was the final act still to come, the headliner. To wild applause, the march chairman, A. Philip Randolph, introduced Dr. King as "the moral leader of our nation." Jones stood no more than 50 feet behind King as he made his way to the podium. He didn't know how King had pulled the speech together after they left the lobby the night before. Jones didn't read the speech that had been typed up and mimeographed, although he had occasion to touch almost every page of every copy handed out to the press (an unprecedented dance over copyright control that is covered in Behind the Dream and is the reason you likely won’t see the text of "I have a dream" published in any newspaper this week or next).

When King started, a shock hit Jones. The words rolled across the Mall:

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 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, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

King seemed to be essentially reciting the opening suggestions his friend had handed to him the night before. This was strange, given the way the reverend usually worked over the material Levison and Jones provided. By the time Jones absorbed what he was hearing, King had finished the promissory-note analogy. He paused. And in that little breach, something unexpected, historic and largely unheralded happened. Dr. King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, called to him from nearby: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream!"

King clutched the speaker's lectern, leaned back and seemed to reset. Jones watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side and knew this event-capping performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment:

I leaned over and said to the person standing next to me, "These people out there today don't know it yet, but they're about ready to go to church." From his body language and the tone in his voice, I knew Martin was about to transform into the superb Baptist preacher he was. Like three generations of Baptist preachers before him in his family. Then, honoring Mahalia's request, Martin spoke those words that in retrospect feel destined to ring out that day: I have a dream ...

The speech was improvised from that point on. In front of all those people, all those cameras, all those microphones, King winged it. But then, he was no stranger to extemporaneous speech. Jones often equates King's dexterity with words to today's cut-and-paste computer operations. No one he has ever met could do it better, and he's met them all.

It wasn't that Jackson was unhappy with the speech, it's that she wanted King to preach.

The balance of the speech went on to depart drastically from the promissory-note metaphor Jones had set up, and he would be the first to tell you America is the better for it. Reflecting on his draft, Jones concedes that nearly any confident public speaker could have held the crowd's attention with his proposed text. But only King could have delivered "I have a dream."

Critics of Jones often imply that King was such a strong writer that he would never require others to draft written material for him. The FBI record says otherwise. Jones holds no grudge regarding his place in the history books:

Fate and hate made Martin a martyr and, in my own lifetime, a kind of unique American myth usually reserved for the most rare of generals and presidents. Myths, almost by definition, have to stand alone and apart from common man. People get extremely invested in that mythology. I begrudge no one who sets out to defend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reputation as a writer and philosopher sine pari, but I cannot understand the idea that admitting the man had people to help him along means something is taken away.

He improvised it all

Over dinner at Sylvia's in Harlem recently, Jones and I discussed why he thought Jackson interrupted the final address. "It was as if, in Mahalia's mind, the speech she wanted Martin to give had nothing to do with him reading," Jones told me. "It wasn't that she was unhappy with the speech. It's that she wanted him to preach."

And preach he did. Jones knows people have only to hear a recording of King speak a handful of these words from his speech and, for the rest of their life, when they read it, they will hear his signature cadence inside. Can you hear it now?

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. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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!

And on King went, building and building upon that handful of deceptively simple words with examples that reflected off each other and yet kept adding other layers of meaning. And he improvised it all. He spoke of children of different races holding hands. He spoke of a great metaphoric leveling of the land and a straightening out of "crooked places," which of course has an amazing dual meaning it would take some writers a lifetime to come up with.

Jones had never seen anything like it:

The crowd was rapt. I was charged with a feverish kind of love for my friend. I figured you could measure the tears of joy in the crowd by the gallon. And when he ended with a cried refrain from the spiritual that predated the Emancipation Proclamation, the dizzy sense of history -- both past and future -- struck me full force:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!


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