I Have a Dream Speech: 9 Surprising Facts About Martin Luther King Jr Speech

January 19, 2014 Updated: January 19, 2014

The “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, is legendary. But behind the speech is an interesting story that many may not know.

Let’s take a look at how the speech came to be.

-King asked his aides for advice about the speech on August 28, the day before it was set to happen. Wyatt Walker, one of the aides, told him: ”Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream.’ It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already,”  reported the Guardian. King had been preaching about his dream since 1957, and had used the information in recent speeches, including a week earlier at a fundraiser in Chicago and a few months before that at a rally in Detroit in front of 150,000 people at Cobo Hall.

-King had plenty of help writing the speech. Multiple advisers and others sat with him, helping him hammer out the final version. They were up until around 4 a.m.

-The March on Washington nearly didn’t happen. President John F. Kennedy ultimately signaled his approval after meetings with leaders involved when they promised him that it would be a peaceful event, according to the Constitution Center. At the same time, other civil rights activists didn’t support the march, including Malcolm X.

-About a quarter-of-a-million people attended the march. About 60,000 of these were white. The people came from all over the country–and the march was in fact peaceful, as few arrests were reported.

-The event featured 10 speakers, all men. King was last. By the time he got the podium, some attendees had left.

-The “I Have a Dream” part of King’s speech wasn’t in the prepared remarks. One account of what happened says that Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and friend of King’s, shouted out to him: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” at which point he launched into improvised remarks.

-President Kennedy was impressed. Watching the speech from the White House, he said “That guy is really good.” 

-The head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, William Sullivan, was not impressed. Two days after the speech, he wrote in a memo that the speech solidified King “as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” 

-King went on to other memorable events and accomplishments, including being the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner ever. He was 35 when he awarded the prize in 1964. He was later bested by Tawakkol Karman of Yemen (32).

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber
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