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Behind the Dream

A key Martin Luther King aide offers a fascinating new, first-hand perspective on the “dream” speech.

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The night before King spoke to the nation in August 1963, Jones was one of a small group of advisers who huddled with him in a Washington hotel, debating what the country’s most important civil rights leader ought to say. A prescient Ralph Abernathy, an important figure in the movement, reminded King that he had to inspire the crowd. “Martin, you have to preach,” he said. “That’s what the people want to hear.” And the next afternoon, King would do just that.

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If Mahalia Jackson had helped King through tough times when he was on the road, Jones makes the case – in the book’s climactic scene – that the singer played a vital role in King’s historic address.

Jones and Jackson were both close to King as he stood before the assembled thousands. The author was just 15 yards from the lectern, watching the minister’s every gesture and listening intently to his every word. As for Jackson, she was no passive observer of the event.

Several paragraphs into the speech, King paused before continuing to read from his prepared text. At that moment, Jackson urged King on, calling out, “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream!’ ” Upon hearing the singer’s cry, Jones recalls, King began to improvise, shifting “gears in a heartbeat,” as he pushed the page aside and abandoned the words on the lectern before him. (Among leading King biographers, none has told the story in this way.)

In “honoring Mahalia’s request,” Jones claims, King proceeded to tell America about his dream. Comparing the minister’s effort to the work of a great jazz soloist, Jones writes of King’s deep and abiding trust in Mahalia Jackson. She was the minister’s muse, he observes, and King instantly understood the value of her suggestion and “decided to run with it” by describing a dream founded on equality and justice.

Over the next two years, the work of King and countless other race activists would lead to the passage of legislation that would fundamentally reconfigure race relations across the nation.

While today the United States is dramatically different from the land King was working to change, who would deny that his dream commands us to do far more than we have? Perhaps the best way to “restore America’s honor” today would be to pledge that no further generations need pass before King’s dream is wholly realized.

Jonathan Rosenberg, a professor of American history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, has written widely on the civil rights movement.

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