"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

King's iconic `Dream' speech was ad libbed, former adviser reveals

‘Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation’

By Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 204 pages, $22

By Steve Weinberg • Special to the Post-Dispatch


As a Southern Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. developed a talent for presenting sermons that came from the heart as well as the intellect. His ability to speak extemporaneously served King well many times, but none better than on Aug. 28, 1963. On that day, the controversial, charismatic civil rights leader spoke to about 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

King's speech has since become known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. In "Behind the Dream," one of King's closest advisers reveals that the phrase "I have a dream" never appeared in the prepared text, and neither did some of the sentiments ad libbed by King to the multiracial throng mashed together in the nation's capital.

The ad libbing began after King had presented a more-or-less set speech (reprinted starting on page 105 of the book). At a point when King paused, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting near him, said to him, "Tell 'em about the Dream, Martin…" Amid the din of the crowd, not many heard Jackson's suggestion. But Clarence B. Jones did, and so did King.

Jones could see King turn over the prepared text and "begin riffing on a theme that he had used on more than one occasion, without previously generating much of an enthusiastic reaction."

This time, though, King's instinct told him enthusiasm would reign. The new direction of the speech sounded practiced just for that occasion, although it was not. King's "dexterity with memory and words ran along the lines of the cut-and-paste function in today's computer programs," Jones reveals.

Jones understood that King had delivered a pitch-perfect sermon to the masses: "The effect was nothing short of soul-stirring."

How Jones became a King adviser is an interesting part of the book. Jones, an African-American, had paid little attention to the civil rights movement, organized religion or King until 1960. Before that, the young lawyer was focused on making money, providing material possessions and comfort for his family. When the government appeared to be saddling King with a questionable tax-evasion charge, one of the minister's high-level counselors asked Jones for legal assistance. Jones said no, thinking to himself — uncharitably and unlawyerly: "Just because some Negro preacher got his hand caught in the cookie jar, that is not my problem."

King did not express dismay openly, but Jones' wife, Anne, did express dismay. So he reluctantly accepted King's invitation to attend a guest sermon at a Los Angeles church, which was near Jones' home at the time. Attending the powerful sermon altered Jones' life course. He became a King disciple.

Stuart Connelly is a professional writer and filmmaker who helped Jones write the book, but the sentiments are those of Jones, a lesser-known yet knowledgeable King aide. Jones' role in conceiving and drafting what morphed into the "dream" speech gave him satisfaction then and now.

Jones understands that the achievement of unadulterated civil rights remains a goal, not a reality. A post-racial United States is not even close to being achieved, he says, despite the election of President Barack Obama:

"Racism continues to fester in every city, town and village of this country."

Steve Weinberg of Columbia, Mo., reviews books regularly for the Post-Dispatch.

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