On August 28, 1963, in front of a crowd of nearly 250,000 people in the National Mall in Washington, DC, Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a dream speech ”from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Organizers of the event, officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, had hoped 100,000 people would attend. Ultimately, more than double that number flocked to the nation’s capital for the massive protest march, making it the largest protest in US history to date.
WATCH: The power of Martin Luther King, the ‘I have a dream’ speech
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech now stands out as one of the most unforgettable moments of the 20th century, but a few facts about it may still surprise you.
1.) There was initially no woman included in the event.
Despite the pivotal roles that women like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates and others played in the civil rights movement, all of the March on Washington speakers were men. But at the behest of Anna Hedgeman, the only woman on the planning committee, organizers added a “Tribute to Black Women Fighting for Freedom” to the program. Bates spoke briefly for Myrlie Evers, widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and Parks and several others were recognized and asked to bow down. “We’re going to sit down and kneel and lie down if necessary until all black people in America can vote,” Bates said. “That’s what we promise the women of America.”
2.) A white labor leader and a rabbi were among the 10 speakers on stage that day.
King was predeceased by nine other speakers, including civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph and a young John Lewis, future congressman from Georgia. The most prominent white speaker was Walter Reuther, leader of the United Automobile Workers, a powerful union. The UAW helped fund the march on Washington, and Reuther would later march alongside King from Selma to Montgomery in protest for black suffrage.
Joachim Prinz, president of the US Jewish Congress, spoke directly to King. “A great people who had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent spectators,” Prinz said of his experience as a rabbi in Berlin during the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. “America must not become a nation of spectators. America must not remain silent.
3.) King hardly gave what is now the most famous part of the speech.
King had used the phrase “I have a dream” in his speeches at least nine months before the March on Washington, and has used it several times since. His advisers discouraged him from repeating the same theme, and he apparently wrote a version of the speech that did not include it. But as he spoke that day, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson prompted him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin”. Abandoning his prepared text, King improvised the rest of his speech, with electrifying results.
4.) The speech alludes to the Gettysburg speech, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, Shakespeare and the Bible.
“Five years ago,” King began, referring to the opening of Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg as well as the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect in 1863. After 100 years, King noted , “The Negro is still not free”, and the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were still denied to black Americans. Image of “this stifling summer of legitimate black discontent” echoes William Shakespeare’s opening soliloquy Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), as the speech ‘s booming end, with its repeated refrains of “Let Liberty Ring” appeal to the 19th century patriotic song “My Country’ Tis of Thee ”, written by Samuel Francis Smith.
Finally, King’s speech draws on several occasions from the Bible, including an allusion to the Book of Psalms (“Crying may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning”) and a quote from the Book. Isaiah (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low …”), to name just two references.
5.) The speech impressed the Kennedy administration and helped advance civil rights legislation in Congress.
The three major television networks of the time (ABC, CBS, and NBC) broadcast King’s speech, and although he was already a national figure by this time, it was the first time many Americans – including President John F. Kennedy – had heard it. give a whole speech. Kennedy was assassinated less than three months later, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, marking the most significant advancements in rights legislation civilians since reconstruction.
6.) At the same time, the success of the speech attracted the attention (and suspicion) of the FBI.
Federal authorities have followed the march on Washington closely, fearing sedition and violence. The policing of the march turned into a military operation, dubbed Operation Steep Hill, with 19,000 troops put on standby in the DC suburbs to quell possible riots (which did not take place). ). After the event, William Sullivan, head of the FBI, wrote that “King’s powerful and demagogic speech” meant “we must mark him now … as the most dangerous negro of the future in this nation”.
At the urgent request of the FBI, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the installation of wiretaps on King’s phone and at the offices of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), apparently to examine potential Communist ties. . The FBI then stepped up its surveillance of King, which lasted until his assassination in 1968.
7.) The King family still has the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Although it is one of the most famous and celebrated speeches in US history, the “I Have a Dream” speech is not in the public domain, but is protected by the Copyright – which is owned and enforced by King’s heirs. As stated in the Washington postKing himself obtained the rights a month after delivering the speech, when he sued two companies selling unauthorized copies. While some parts of the speech can be used legally without approval (for example, individual teachers may have used the speech in their classrooms), the King Estate requires that anyone who wishes to broadcast the speech pay this fee.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King, Jr.