Little-known facts behind the greatest adlibbed speech of the 20th century

August 28, 2013

2 minute read

Today is the anniversary of arguably the greatest speech in history – Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream”.

Historian and economist Dr Gary North has analyzed the speech here.  What I found most interesting in this analysis… was that the third portion of the speech was adlibbed!

I was also unaware there were two authors. The living co-author, Clarence B Jones, has written a book about it – Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation.

In his book, Jones described coming up with the metaphor of American blacks (Negroes back then!) having not received the Jefferson promise of equality as noted in the Declaration of Independence.

Jones co-authored the speech with the speaker, Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor, and an orator of uncommon skill. Using his knowledge of ordinary people, King changed the lawyerly promissory ‘note metaphor’ into that of a bounced check, and won great applause.

It was the third – and most memorable – portion of the speech however, that he adlibbed: The “I have a dream” portion. That’s the part everybody at least thinks they know about… the one many politicians and advertisers have fought to reuse for their own persuasive purposes ever since.

Obviously the speech is what everyone remembers… that’s what made history. But I’m obsessed with documents, so this inner process is what grabbed me most. From generating a document, collaborating with colleagues, finalizing it, publishing it… and in this historically interesting example… ignore a third of the document to adlib the speech! 

After all this talk about the inner process of generating documents and speeches, you might want to see a copy of King’s speech, stored – naturally – as a PDF.

The National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) preserves historic documents for future generations. While preserving all American historical documents means it stores a LOT of important documents, the 50th anniversary of this event is a big enough deal for NARA to have issued a press release about it.

And in the spirit of collaboration, to help you prepare your own memorable speeches, here’s a link to the analysis of King’s I have a Dream speech by Andrew Dlugan.

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