Here in the US, January 21st marks Dr. Martin Luther King Day (his official birthday was January 15th), and I hope that we can each spend some time honoring Dr. King in our own way.
Dr. King is remembered for so much, but his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is one of his most famous. His address called for the end of racism in the United States, spoken to over 250,000 civil rights supporters at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Each MLK day, I try and read something that Dr. King wrote. But today, by chance, my cousin sister played a recording of this iconic speech while we were driving and it reminded me that while the words are important – the passion and conviction behind those words are moving in their own right.
Instead of focusing on the man, or the movement he inspired, I wanted to learn more about the actual origin of the speech. It had been known to have several versions, written at different times. It was drafted with the assistance of Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones, in Riverdale, New York. Jones claimed that "the logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us" and that "on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, [12 hours before the March] Martin still didn't know what he was going to say." Toward the end of its delivery, noted African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King from the crowd to “Tell them about the dream!”, and he stopped delivering his prepared speech, and said:
I say to you today, my friends, so 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 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.
What struck me was that the most moving part of Dr. King’s 17-minute speech was the one that was off-course. That the most famous passage, the one that resonated with the crowd 50+ years ago, and with me still as I re-read his words – is the one that was not planned, not scripted, but purely from the heart. It reminded me of the value of speaking honestly, and warmly – not just when addressing an audience, but also when, and especially when, addressing one another. We are each connected to one another, if not informally through friendships that have evolved over the years, then through the collegiality that comes from working together towards something we truly care about. And it’s important to remember that in our communications, while it’s crucial to talk about the tasks we need to get done, and the to-do lists we need to make progress on – it is equally important to connect with one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. It is only from that deeper level that we can become the community that Dr. King so often speaks of.