Behind the Dream & beyond words
The making of a speech
by Bruce Mason
On August 28, 1963, 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. passionately and eloquently shared his ‘Dream’ – in 17 minutes and 1,700 words – and the world awakened.
As King stood at the foot of the towering memorial to Abraham Lincoln – he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years earlier – A. Philip Randolph introduced the Baptist preacher/civil rights leader as “the moral authority of our nation.”
Randolph had conceived of a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” during the Great Depression – the Dirty 30’s – but that mass protest hadn’t materialized. Decades later, as Randolph stepped aside at the lectern, he surely knew that his idea’s time had come at last.
As King glanced over three pages of notes, organizer Bayard Rustin gleefully wove through the massive crowd, congregated shoulder to shoulder in the hot, humid afternoon around the Reflecting Pool, as far as the eye could see.
Rustin had marshalled thousands of charter buses, special trains and water-storage trucks for portable, non-segregated water fountains. He knew the crowd had grown significantly during the March as volunteers prepared 80,000 fifty-cent box lunches, containing a cheese sandwich, a slice of pound cake and an apple.
The demonstration exceeded 250,000 people, surpassing unprecedented preparations and optimistic expectations. And so would King. He rose to the occasion from behind a cluster of microphones, beginning his address to what he called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
Chosen as the sixth and final speaker – to allow him all the time he needed – King was to deliver the urgent message and declarative statement on the future of the movement.
For the first time, all three national television networks would beam his every word and gesture, along with the crowd’s responses, across the country and around the world.
Photographers jostled, elbowing to capture iconic images for front pages, which for months had carried horrific pictures of snarling dogs drawing blood and powerful fire hoses upending peaceful demonstrators on streets and sidewalks in the Deep South, not so far away.
And nearby in D.C., the slain body of civil rights activist Medgar Evers lay in public view at a church on 21st Avenue.
Harry Belafonte had invited sympathetic celebrities including Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando as well as Sidney Poitier. Twenty-two-year-old Bob Dylan had helped warm up the crowd, along with Joan Baez, Odetta and others. One quarter of the faces were white, some famous, others influential, taking advantage and adding depth and punch to monochromatic TV broadcasts and news photos.
King announced unequivocally that the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” had arrived “to cash a check,” noting the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were “promissory notes” that “guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, the Attorney General, were among the millions in the rapt TV audience. Sequestered in the Oval Office, they worried and walked in circles, having warned that the event would jeopardize JFK’s pending civil rights legislation in Congress.
“America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” King told the massive audience. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” The unmistakeable, unforgettable metaphor had crystallized 12 hours earlier in the lobby of the Willard Hotel.
After meeting with a cross-section of religious and labour leaders, academics and activists, King instructed Clarence B. Jones – his close adviser, personal lawyer and speechwriter – to organize a summary of the discussion. The outline, entitled “What We Demand,” included the “bad check” reference and urged immediate action.
“Thank you, gentlemen. Now, I’m going to counsel with my Lord,” said King, taking the notes upstairs to his room, alone. In his book, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation, Jones reports that the famous phrase wasn’t in the draft. He believes the sudden, riveting crescendo was God-given.
At the ninth paragraph, Mahalia Jackson, the speaker’s favourite gospel singer, pleaded from 15 feet away, “Tell ‘em about the dream Martin. Tell ‘em about the dream.” While King had previously spoken the words, “I Have a Dream,” it had modest impact compared to that moment when he launched into the most remembered segment of the most significant speech of the 20th century.
Pushing aside prepared text, he was catapulted into history, speaking from his heart, spontaneously, extemporaneously.
“I hadn’t experienced him speak that way before, as if some cosmic transcendental force possessed him,” recalls Jones. “I remember commenting, ‘This crowd should be ready to go to church.’ It was spellbinding, electrifying, lightning in a bottle.”
The master orator created his masterpiece, composing, cutting and pasting material in his mind, in real time. Preaching powerfully, he stirred the moral conscience of millions, tapping into core values and yearnings of humanity, speaking prophetically about living life without hatred and violence, inviting his audience to mountaintops, imagining and sharing new perspectives and vision.
Jones, a Juilliard-trained clarinettist – as well as a lawyer – could craft persuasive speeches with lyrical cadence and rhythm. But during the thunderous applause, as thousands wept openly, he told King that his “I Have a Dream” improvisations had eclipsed the musical genius of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
The speech has been studied ever since. Generations have pored over its 60 metaphors and allusions to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation and the Bible.
Until that day, news reports from civil rights frontline battlefields rarely mentioned voting rights or work and dignity. Focusing on violence, they tended to exploit rather than explain. Now the stage was set. The lights, curtains and cameras had gone up on ‘Three Evils.’ Poverty was now included along with racism and injustice. It was time for action.
Alarmed, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI reported, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro to the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
Despite the paranoid Hoover’s best clandestine efforts, King became a household name for time immemorial. He garnered broad-based support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a year later when Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” was also chosen as the youngest person to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, as the speech resonated and began reverberating, a militant Malcolm X cynically predicted, “Martin’s dream will be a nightmare before it’s over.” And King himself later remarked, “So often in these past two years I have felt my dream falter as I have travelled through the rat-infested slums of our big city ghettos and watched our jobless and hopeless poor sweltering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated annually on his birthday in January. Last year, a monument built in China was unveiled in Washington. This year, elaborate celebrations have been carefully planned to honour the 50th anniversary of the speech. But pomp is morphing into a high profile opportunity to demonstrate against what King named “the appalling condition” and “withering injustice.” The party is growing into a protest as the five days of congratulatory ceremonies are being modified to what King called for: “A whirlwind of revolt” in “the fierce urgency of now.”
Youngest daughter and King Center CEO Bernice King announced the partnering of legacy organizations of the original March with other groups. “Our coalition hopes to make the 50th anniversary of my father’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech a meaningful experience which addresses the urgent causes of jobs, justice and freedom,” she said.
As you read this, the US is awash in the Zimmerman verdict, rapidly increasing inequity, plummeting opportunity and injustice. And Detroit – Motown – has become the first major city to declare bankruptcy.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested more than 20 times, stabbed and his home was bombed. He faced constant death threats before being assassinated in April of 1968, at the age of 39, standing on a Memphis motel balcony, where he had travelled to support striking sanitation workers.
“1963 is not an end, but a beginning… We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, ” King said. His ‘Dream’ is unrealized, the “bad check” remains unpaid, but his call to action – “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” – echoes still.
A King insider and unsung hero carries on
BC resident Jack O’Dell was a member of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. For the 50th anniversary of the famed “I Have a Dream” speech – and his own 90th birthday this month – the legendary O’Dell was interviewed by Common Ground writer Bruce Mason, as spoke about the legacy of King in our troubled, endangered world.
“You wanted to discuss Martin and his ‘Dream.’ Well, right this way, brother,” O’Dell says from the doorway of his Vancouver apartment. “We all know he was a wonderful orator, but he was also a very good listener. It’s what helped make him a great leader. That’s important to understand, especially during these deeply troubling times.
“We’re facing a cascade of unprecedented problems with high levels of uncertainty and low levels of hope. That’s leading to a deepening poverty of everyday life, materially and spiritually,” observes Hunter Pitts ‘Jack’ O’Dell, who ‘retired’ – with his wife Jane Power – to Canada’s west coast after five decades in the epicentre of volatile change south of the border. “Our challenges aren’t insurmountable. We have the capacity to embrace them. First, we must renew the courage and vision that Martin has come to represent.”
I arrived for our interview with my thumb-worn copy of Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell, a collection that “restores one of the great unsung heroes and analysts of the civil rights movement and his rightful place in the historical record.” But the 2012 book and other research have left me somewhat unprepared for my first face-to-face meeting with the legendary and controversial activist/writer. He’s celebrating his 90th birthday this month [August] and I’m surprised by the passion, warmth, wisdom and full-blown feisty vitality that is Jack O’Dell in the flesh.
“Too many so-called leaders aren’t good listeners because they have already made up their minds,” explains the former member of King’s inner circle. “He wanted the facts. We operated on them, on what I refer to as the ‘relatedness’ of facts. “Dr. King listened intently, making certain that he heard fully what we knew, our experiences and honest thoughts. Adding his own understanding is what helped him connect the dots and to construct a vision that he could then clearly articulate, knowledgeably and powerfully.”
O’Dell energetically leads the way through piles of papers in his living room. He is getting around to a request for his personal archives made about 20 years ago by a prestigious branch of the New Public Library. Clearing space, he’s keen to continue what he calls our “conversation.”
“The ‘Dream’ phrase may stand out in people’s minds, but it’s essential to also remember and focus on the reference to the ‘bad check’ before that. And to be aware that this was a call to action, to return to the South and to the slums and ghettos of Northern cities and change the ‘situation.’
“Two years earlier, Eisenhower left office warning of the ‘grave implications’ of the ‘growing military industrial complex’ to liberty and democracy,” O’Dell recalls. “This parasitic malignancy has grown exponentially, nurtured by corporate greed, national arrogance and too often, a grievous lack of attention from the general public.
“Back in 1958, after the New York stabbing – the first real attempt on his life – Martin remarked, ‘We hope to achieve a nation at peace with itself, at peace with its own conscience.’ That idea remained central to the movement, along with non-violence, courage and commitment, of course. “Look at his Riverside Church Speech during the Vietnam War, naming militarism as an interdependent evil, along with racial injustice and poverty. Breaking silence – that’s one condition required for the thoughtful, respectful discussion that must take place if we are to survive.
“I grew up in the Detroit ghetto. Later, I sat behind screens on streetcars and buses, couldn’t eat in a Walgreens drugstore restaurant or go to a public park. But early on – as a paperboy in the 1930s – I heard Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats on radios everywhere. His New Deal was designed to help restore wealth to the public. It was being fought against by what he called ‘economic royalists.’ And they are still at it today.
“FDR didn’t wait for State of the Union speeches, press conferences or crises. He didn’t try for the centre or accommodate the Right. Instead, he spoke to us directly and often gave us hope, told us ‘we had nothing to fear but fear itself.’ That was one of his four freedoms. So was freedom from want – freedom from poverty – right along with freedom of religion and freedom of speech and expression.”
O’Dell abandoned university studies to fight fascism in WWII. More aware of progressive and left-wing thinkers, he came home to actively organize labour and take part in other progressive activities in the Popular Front, including joining the Communist Party.
“I’ve never met a black person who joined the Party because of anything to do with the Soviet Union,” recalls O”Dell, categorized as “one of the most belligerent witnesses ever summoned” by the McCarthy era’s House of Un-American Activities (HUAC). “We were fighting for jobs and rights at home in the US. But I quit the Party in favour of the Civil Rights Movement.”
By the late ‘50s, O’Dell had become acquainted with King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Harassed by the FBI, attempting to discredit the movement through red and black-baiting and HUAC ‘investigations,’ O’Dell had difficulty finding sustained employment, sometimes working under pseudonyms, on the run. However, he earned a reputation as one of the most energetic and vocal community organizers in the South. Hired by King in 1961 to co-manage an office in New York, he helped pioneer mass direct-mail marketing, a success that would further mark him.
O’Dell served as SCLC’s director of voter registration in seven southern states and was particularly active in planning its highly successful 1963 Birmingham campaign. Targeted sit-ins, economic boycotts of businesses with larger protests and massive demonstrations were designed to attract attention as well as fill Birmingham jails to overcrowding. He assured King the necessary resources were available to carry out the strategy that led to the ‘Dream’ speech several months later.
Those conversations and meetings were bugged. And recently released wiretaps have revealed King’s comment: “We’re at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement that could pressure the Kennedy administration to finally take decisive action on behalf of black civil rights.”
However, the President and Attorney General took King aside in the White House Rose Garden demanding he cut ties with O’Dell, just weeks before the March on Washington. Noting his major contributions and “significant sacrifice commensurate with the sufferings in jail and through loss of jobs under racist intimidation,” King was finally forced to reluctantly ask for O’Dell’s resignation, rather than risk the discrediting of the movement through anti-socialist campaigns.
“I was in the New York office cleaning out my desk as Martin was making his speech. And the records show that the surveillance of him increased after I left,” reports O’Dell, who went on to work as associate editor of the journal Freedomways – the progressive and pre-eminent international African American journal – for 23 years.
He wrote the first anti-Vietnam War editorial by a black author, among many other topics, including those contained in Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder (University of California Press, edited by Nikhil Pal Singh). A close advisor to Jesse Jackson and the PUSH organization, a member of delegations visiting sites across the third world and a key intellectual figure in campaigns from discrediting South African apartheid to advancing the Nuclear Freeze, O’Dell played major roles in the Rainbow Coalition and Jackson’s two runs for the US Presidency.
In his honour, the national office of the Institute for Community Leadership – on its 20-acre campus in Washington State – has been named the Jack O’Dell Education and Reflection Center (www.odellcenter.org). It recognizes and teaches that “reflection and action are two elements of a single well-lived personality.” Included in the curriculum are “Dr. Martin Luther King Nonviolence” and “Personal Transformation Through Social Participation.”
“Democracy unattended by public awareness will ultimately cease to exist. And the moment in which we find ourselves is one of great power and authenticity,” Jack advises. “The transformative change required isn’t the responsibility of government. Transformative change is an important part of personal life and growth. It’s also a matter of individual civic responsibility.
“There is a great deal of pain and injustice in the world right now, too much suffering. The future of humanity depends on confronting these challenges with determination, revolutionary patience, hope and a strong and active faith.
“Our challenge is to build a grassroots movement, organized, disciplined and informed – a movement of nonviolent action that is sustainably connected to visionary electoral politics and directs it.”
I ask Jack what sustains him. O’Dell’s laughter fills his wise, well-lived face. “Reality,” he replies. “The truth is what Martin was seeking and speaking about. And the truth will set us free, all of us.”
Visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, www.thekingcenter.org
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola Island-based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org
photo of Martin Luther King memorial ©Photobulb