Jones was Martin Luther King’s lawyer, and one of his inner circle of advisors. That put Jones in a very good position to witness the development of the idea for the march on Washington, the planning for it, and the event itself. He recaptures very convincingly the state of mind of King’s circle beforehand, not knowing whether or not the speech would be a success, worrying about harassment from the FBI, and struggling with the demands of all the groups that wanted to be involved and have their say in how the day worked.
In the end, of course, it worked very, very well. Jones moves on to talk about the development of the speech – he was also King’s speechwriter – and takes credit, essentially, for the first half of the speech. This section talks (in somewhat legalistic terms) about the promissory note still due American blacks because of the injustice meted out to them over the previous several hundred years.
Of course the magic happened in the second half of the speech, where King left his script and ad-libbed the incredible “I have a dream” sequence, as I’ve blogged about before. What Jones adds is that the impetus to ad-lib came from Mahalia Jackson, the great singer, who had treated the audience to a heartfelt rendition of a gospel number, “I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned,” just before King began to speak. She shouted to King, according to Jones, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” about midway through the speech.
Jones’ theory is that King heard those words, and in nanoseconds decided to throw away his script and begin ad-libbing.
It makes a great story, and of course it’s possible. But my hunch is that King must have realized that he wasn’t connecting with the audience several minutes before that. A decision like that comes from a growing sense that you need to shift gears because of the unconscious messages the audience sends you. Jackson’s urging might well have tipped the balance, but unless it was reinforced with King’s own feeling about the audience, I doubt one shouted comment alone would have had the effect Jones attributes to it. King’s speaking style, from his Baptist minister days, incorporated a good deal of ‘call and response’, so there was lots of shouting going on.
If you watch the filmed record of the event, all you see is the shift itself, with King mostly reading the script in the first half of the speech, to him directly addressing the crowd in the second half. Make a decision to go off script he clearly did, but what prompted the decision? We will never know for sure.
Nonetheless, Jones was there and I wasn’t, and his tale adds to the lore of what is one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. The book is wonderful, and rewarding for students of public speaking as well as of the civil rights era. History is all too often written backward, with the certainty of future knowledge lending inevitability to the author’s insights. Jones is particularly skilled at giving us the contingent nature of events as the happen, and that is a great gift to anyone who wants to understand where we’ve really come from. Highly recommended.
For more detailed analysis of King’s speech, especially of the ad lib section, see my earlier blog, “What you don’t know about King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”