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"I had a dream" is a masterful piece of speechwriting and communications, but not King's best

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As we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech, aside from the obvious historical importance of it, I am reminded of just how great a piece of speechwriting it was.

 

As someone who especially appreciates great speechwriting, this one has always been at the top of my list. I find it absolutely genius in the way it was crafted. The images King draws, the careful line he walks between the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of being black, or to use the vernacular off the day, a Negro in the United States.

 

But the real magic of that speech, the power that drove it home, was half way through when he went off script. Up to that point he was reading, head down reciting the words on the page. As the story goes, his friend gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted “Tell em about the dream Martin”. That's when he moved his script aside.

 

King's speechwriter Clarence B. Jones watched this unfold, and as he tells it he saw King shift gears in a heartbeat. Jones leaned over to the man next to him and said “These people out there today don't know it yet, but they're about to go to church.”

 

The conventional wisdom is that from that point on, in other words the “I had a dream” part was improvised. That's not entirely true because it is a speech he had given about two months before, it just wasn't planned for that day.

 

But when he shifted into it, he started truly speaking from the heart, and what came out was so perfect in so many ways, not just for content but also for style. The images and choices of words flowed. But it is the style, the cadence that what made it memorable.

 

Notice the cadence – the repetition of the line “I have a dream”. Eight times in a row he starts his sentence with it, and when he says his dream is to live in a nation where his children will “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, notice the alliteration and the use of the  “ka” sound – colour, content, character.

 

And at the end of the speech the repetition returns with his use of “Let freedom ring” eight times, leading to what is probably the most memorable close of a speech ever – “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

 

As speeches go, it doesn't get any better than this.

 

But that said, I don't think it's his best writing. His “Letter from a Brimingham jail”, written in reply to a number of fellow ministers who were critical of his actions because they often prompted violence, was even more inspired.

 

There's one sentence in that letter that is 316 words long, enough to make any grammar teacher cringe. But it is a run-on sentence that absolutely captures why he cannot agree with his fellow ministers who say he has to be more patient and wait.

 

I'll end this blog with that sentence.

 

“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

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