7 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
CNP/Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, under a sweltering sun, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to participate in an event formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From start to finish, it was a passionate plea for civil rights reform, and one speech in particular captured the ethos of the moment. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 17-minute “I Have a Dream” address—which was broadcast in real time by TV networks and radio stations—was an oratorical masterpiece. Here are some facts about the inspired remarks that changed King's life, his movement, and the nation at large.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the tenth orator to take the podium that day.

Organizers hoped the March would draw a crowd of about 100,000 people; more than twice as many showed up. There at the Lincoln Memorial, 10 civil rights activists were scheduled to give speeches—to be punctuated by hymns, prayers, pledges, benedictions, and choir performances.

King was the lineup’s tenth and final speaker. The list of orators also included labor icon A. Philip Randolph and 23-year-old John Lewis, who was then the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (He’s now a U.S. congressman representing Georgia’s fifth district.)

2. Nelson Rockefeller inspired part of the "I Have A Dream" speech.

For years, Clarence B. Jones was Dr. King’s personal attorney, a trusted advisor, and one of his speechwriters. He also became a frequent intermediary between King and Stanley Levison, a progressive white lawyer who had drawn FBI scrutiny. In mid-August 1963, King asked Jones and Levison to prepare a draft of his upcoming March on Washington address.

“A conversation that I’d had [four months earlier] with then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or a check for justice,” Jones recalled in 2011. “From there, a proposed draft took shape.”

3. The phrase “I have a dream” wasn’t in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prepared speech.

Martin Luther King, Jr. attends a prayer pilgrimage for freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington.National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

On the eve of his big speech, King solicited last-minute input from union organizers, religious leaders, and other activists in the lobby of Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel. But when he finally faced the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, the reverend went off-book. At first King more or less stuck to his notes, reciting the final written version of his address.

Then a voice rang out behind him. Seated nearby was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who yelled, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” Earlier in his career, King had spoken at length about his “dreams” of racial harmony. By mid-1963, he’d used the phrase “I have a dream” so often that confidants worried it was making him sound repetitive.

Jackson clearly didn't agree. At her urging, King put down his notes and delivered the words that solidified his legacy:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ... I have a dream that my four 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."

King's friends were stunned. None of these lines had made it into the printed statement King brought to the podium. “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it,” Jones would later say. “But then, no one I’ve ever met could improvise better.”

4. Sidney Poitier heard the "I Have A Dream" speech in person.

Graham Stark/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier, who was born in the Bahamas on February 20, 1927, broke Hollywood's glass ceiling at the 1964 Academy Awards when he became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field (and the only one until Denzel Washington won for Training Day nearly 40 years later). Poitier, a firm believer in civil rights, attended the ’63 March on Washington along with such other movie stars as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Paul Newman.

5. The "I Have A Dream" speech caught the FBI’s attention.

The FBI had had been wary of King since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was perturbed by the reverend’s association with Stanley Levison, who’d been a financial manager for the Communist party in America. King's “I Have a Dream” speech only worsened the FBI’s outlook on the civil rights leader.

In a memo written just two days after the speech, domestic intelligence chief William Sullivan said, “We must mark [King] 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.” Before the year was out, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy gave the FBI permission to wiretap King’s telephone conversations.

6. In 1999, scholars named "I Have a Dream" the best American speech of the 20th century.

All these years later, “I Have a Dream” remains an international rallying cry for peace. (Signs bearing that timeless message appeared at the Tiananmen Square protests). When communications professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M used input from 137 scholars to create a list of the 100 greatest American speeches given in the 20th century, King’s magnum opus claimed the number one spot—beating out the first inaugural addresses of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.

7. A basketball Hall of Famer owns the original copy of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

George Raveling, an African-American athlete and D.C. native, played college hoops for the Villanova Wildcats from 1956 through 1960. Three years after his graduation, he attended the March on Washington. He and a friend volunteered to join the event’s security detail, which is how Raveling ended up standing just a few yards away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” address. Once the speech ended, Raveling approached the podium and noticed that the three-page script was in the Reverend’s hand. “Dr. King, can I have that copy?,” he asked. Raveling's request was granted.

Raveling went on to coach the Washington State Cougars, Iowa Hawkeyes, and University of Southern California Trojans. In 2015, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although a collector once offered him $3 million for Dr. King’s famous document, Raveling’s refused to part with it.

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65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.