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Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Serendipity

Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I spend some time learning about the man I consider to be one of the greatest leaders and orators in history. As we all know, one of Dr. King's most marvelous achievements was the delivery of his famous "I Have a Dream Speech" at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1964 March on Washington D.C.

I have read the speech scores of times and often watched film of King delivering the oratory that helped changed our nation. And, I knew something about this story I am about to reveal today, but I decided to research a little more. I was already aware of King's rhetorical dexterity as he left his prepared text to improvise the most memorable passages of the address; however, I did not realize the true serendipity of the occurrence.

In his book, Behind the Dream, King speechwriter Clarence B. Jones told the story of what really happened as King prepared for the speech and delivered it on August 28, 1964.

(Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly. Behind the Dream. Palgrave Macmillan. March 2012)

To fully understand the "Dream" speech, one must understand King's close relationship with the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Born in New Orleans in 1911, Mahalia Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform in Carnegie Hall and she sang at President John Kennedy's inaugural ball. ''God touched the vocal cords of this great woman,'' historian Noel Serrano observed.
When she met Martin Luther King Jr. at a Baptist convention, he invited her to join a protest in Montgomery, Alabama, against bus segregation. Ignoring death threats, she agreed. She frequently encountered prejudice and had been thwarted by white owners and agents when trying to buy a home in Chicago. When she succeeded, shots were fired at her windows.

Jackson began to accompany King to rallies in the segregated south, using her voice to ''break down some of the hate and fear that divided white and black."

(Vic Alhadeff. "King's dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson." 
The Sidney Morning Herald. August 26, 2013)

Mahalia Jackson was known to sometimes sooth a despondent Martin Luther King on the phone by performing his favorite hymns.

According to Jones, “When he (King) was down — or the classic word that’s thrown around today, that word depressed — he would ask his secretary Dora McDonald, he would say, ‘Dora, get Mahalia on the phone.’"

Jones continued: "And King would say, ‘Mahalia, I’m having a rough day. Sing for me.’ And Mahalia would sing to him in the phone. She would sing 'Jesus Met the Woman at the Well' or 'The Old Rugged Cross,’ or other favorites."

Drawing strength from Jackson's voice, an exhausted King would lean back in his chair with closed eyes, as the music washed over him. He would listen to her voice through the phone, and sometimes tears would come down his face. Their friendship was truly spiritual.

Cut to the March -- August, 1964

On August 27, the night before the speech, a group of seven individuals, including Clarence Jones, had gathered with King at the Willard Hotel to add their input to the final speech. King asked Jones to take notes and to turn the notes into cohesive remarks he would deliver on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Jones recalled that everyone in the room represented a group that had a stake in the speech and who wanted their voices to be heard. Recalling his difficult task, Jones said, “I tried to summarize the various points made by all of his supporters. It was not easy; voices from every compass point were ringing in my head.”

Jones even remembered being frustrated with the egos of some of the other speakers elbowing for position in the event’s final, prime slot, so he asked if any of them really wanted to follow King to the podium; none did.

King originally designed his speech as a homage to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, timed to correspond with the 100-year centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A particularly foresighted Ralph Abernathy, an important figure and fellow minister 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.”

With three networks screening the rally, it would be Martin Luther King's first nationwide exposure. The pressure on King as the keynote speaker was nearly unbearable. After much work, he duly retired to finalize a presentation he hoped would resonate ''like the Gettysburg address."

Early in the morning of August 28, King is reported to have said dramatically, ''I am going upstairs to counsel with my Lord. See you tomorrow.'' He got to bed about 4 A.M. There was no reference in his speech to dreaming -- a refrain he had used previously, but with no effect.

The next day, the celebrity presence at the march was overwhelming. Among the celebrities were Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. Jones recalled the tremendous display of "stardust" at the march.

“It was so uncomplicated,” Jones said. “It was because that the march as an event would get more general-market media attention if the celebrities were there, that the internal content of the march in and of itself didn’t have the media power to attract the media attention that having America’s top movie stars there would.

“The people present were astounded, overwhelmed. There was a sense of awe, a great sense of validation and gratitude. In other words, if America's top entertainment celebrities think that much to come of this event, to share in this event with us, it was like, ‘This must really be something special. Maybe I’m just somebody who came up from Mississippi or Chicago to march, but, wow, a whole group of America’s top celebrities chartered a whole plane. This must be important.’”

(Dave Walker. "Witness recalls role of New Orleans' Mahalia Jackson in Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech." New Orleans Times-Picayune. August 23, 2013)

But, one star, King's close friend Mahalia Jackson, played the most vital role in his historic address. Both Clarence B. Jones and Jackson were positioned near 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.

The rally began on the hot, sweltering day, and the list of speakers was long. The speakers were limited to five minutes each, but all overran. Overcome by humidity, people began to drift away. King was the last of 16 speakers. He had the difficult task of anchoring the event with some truly memorable words.

Martin Luther King began to deliver his speech. As evidenced in film of the event, he looked down a lot in the first part of the speech. Jones recalled it was evident King was reading much of the text.

And, Jones also remembered being enthralled that his thoughts were included in the speech. Jones had made a suggestion for the initial image of the "promissory note" King had employed in the rhetoric. Jones said, “A pleasant shock came over me as I realized that he seemed to be essentially reciting those suggested opening paragraphs I had scrawled down the night before in my hotel room."

"In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

(Text from is commonly known as the "I Have A Dream" speech)

But, in the seventh paragraph, something extraordinary happened. King paused. In that brief silence, Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” Few people heard her, with the exception of Jones, Ted Kennedy, and, of course, King, himself.

Mahalia Jackson was the minister’s muse, so King instantly understood the value of her suggestion and “decided to run with it.”

Next, King pushed the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He shifted gears in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version he’d prepared…he’d given himself over to the spirit of the moment. At this point, Jones leaned over to the person standing next to him and said, “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Then, King began to describe a dream founded on equality and justice.

"Placing his notes on the lectern, he transformed from pedestrian lecturer into the epitome of inspiration, his tone taking on a soaring cadence and imparting a message whose power and relevance have stood the test of time. Gripping the lectern, he stated: ''So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.''

(Vic Alhadeff. "King's dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson." 
The Sidney Morning Herald. August 26, 2013)

And, so began the magnificent poetry we all know...

And 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 one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

He rarely looked down in the second half of the speech. He no longer read, but "riffed" like a skilled jazz musician. “So much for providing advance material for The March reporters,” wrote Jones. “The effect was nothing short of soul-stirring.”

Although King was ''known before he stepped up to the lectern," eloquently noted Clarence Jones, ''he stepped down on the other side of history."

View the video: click here:

As one last incredible note on the Dream Speech, Jones confirmed that the Justice Department did indeed have a “kill switch” on the sound system. Can you imagine what may have occurred had such a device been employed?

The FBI also noticed the speech. Believe it or not, it provoked them to expand their COINTELPRO operation against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to target King specifically as a major enemy of the United States.

Two days after King delivered "I Have a Dream", Agent William C. Sullivan, the head of COINTELPRO, wrote a memo about King's growing influence:

"In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security."

King was assassinated in 1968. Mahalia Jackson sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for the lines that continue to reverberate in the conscience of America.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I give thanks to Dr. King, Mahalia Jackson, and Clarence B. Jones for insuring the realization of the events of August, 1964, in our nation's capital. And, most of all, as I am sure these dignitaries realized, I thank God for His divine intervention in the event. Rest in peace, Martin Luther King, Jr. as you continue to take comfort in the voice of your gracious muse.

"Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on,
Let me stand
I'm tired, I am weak I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home."

"On my knees when the light pass'd by
I thank God I'm free at last
Tho't my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I'm free at last"

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