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

So to Speak | Joe Blundo commentary: Speech transcended notes as King recalled 'dream'


Clarence B. Jones helped write the part of the "I Have a Dream" speech that is rarely quoted.

And that's fine with him.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. went off script midway through his address on Aug. 28, 1963, he uttered some of the most famous words in American history.

In doing so, King borrowed a theme from a previous speech, expanded on it and delivered it in a way that riveted his enormous audience.

Jones, 80, compares the improvised performance to that of a jazz virtuoso.

"It was like watching lightning in a bottle," he said in a phone interview.

Jones, a lawyer and confidant of King's in the 1960s, is a co-author of the book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation.

He will discuss it during a McCoy Lecture Series address on April 20 in New Albany.

Jones' book offers an inside view of the events leading up to King's speech at the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 people.

As just as their cause was, civil-rights leaders were not without ego in pursuing it.

Jones, a scholar in residence at Stanford University in California, recounts the jockeying over who would get to speak last at the march.

He eventually asked two questions, he said, that quelled the arguing. Referring to King, he said: "Have most of you heard him speak? Do you really want to follow him?"

The night before the speech, King, Jones and other organizers sat in a Washington hotel lobby to discuss what King should say. Jones took notes and, at King's request, retired to his room to write a draft incorporating the ideas.

He returned with a draft that compared the Declaration of Independence to a promissory note on which the nation had failed to deliver because it wasn't treating all citizens as equals. King took Jones' notes to his room.

When King began his speech the next day, he started with Jones' words.

"I was astounded when I heard him speak them," Jones said.

Then, a few minutes into the address, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

She was referring to a speech that King gave a few months earlier in Detroit. Jones watched as King pushed his prepared remarks aside and seemed to gather himself.

Jones turned to someone beside him and said, "These people don't know it, but they're about to go to church."

The combination of the crowd's energy and King's unique ability to find - on the spur of the moment - the right combination of words added up to what is remembered today, Jones said.

"It was the most magical, extraordinary thing to see."

Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.


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