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Martin Luther King’s Famous “I Have a Dream” Speech—Advance Text Given to the Press at the 1963 March on Washington
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“Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity….

… 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 would be granted 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… 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….

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

… There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our Nation until the bright day of justice emerges...

Martin Luther King, Jr.. “Advance Text of Speech To Be Delivered By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference March on Washington August 28, 1963”. Original mimeograph, run off by March’s Press Office between 4-7 a.m. on Aug. 28th.

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There are no 1776 printings of the “Unanimous” Declaration of Independence, and none that list the now-famous signers. We’re still not sure when the Bill of Rights was first printed as 10 amendments, but it wasn’t until years after it was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. And this first printing of Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech could not be genuine if it included the dream.  

People would wait for hours to hear Dr. King, but the two main organizers of the March, Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, had to contend with leaders of more than a dozen Civil Rights organizations. Officially Dr. King had the same 5-minute maximum as the other most prominent leaders; privately, Rustin and Randolph had agreed that Dr. King could go longer. 

Although King had spent months working to ensure the success of the March, he didn’t seriously turn to writing his speech until the night before, when he met with his key advisors at the Willard Hotel, around 8 p.m. By 10 p.m., Clarence Jones was sent upstairs to organize the notes he had taken, and to draft the speech. About 11:30 p.m., Jones returned. By midnight, King took the revised notes up to his room to finish. Around 4 a.m., he handed it in, and around 7 a.m., the press office had finished running off mimeograph copies for use in press kits.

The advanced text of the speech of John Lewis, the 23-year old chairman of the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee*, had already been the subject of an emergency meeting, where Lewis agreed to remove his reference to “patience” as a dirty word. If he hadn’t, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Thomas O’Boyle, scheduled to give the invocation, threatened to pull out of the March entirely. 

That morning, King and the other leaders met, lobbied Congress, sat for group photographs, greeted VIPs who had come from far and wide, and then had to rush back to get in front of the marchers who spontaneously started marching more than an hour early. Then, as the ceremonies began, they slipped out to a meeting right behind Lincoln’s statue, to continue to wrestle with John Lewis, whose speech was considered too inflammatory.

We don’t believe King’s speech was “reviewed” at all. Leaving some time for crowd reaction, his three-page Advance Text was just the right length.

Watching different films of the speech, we can see that Dr. King was “on script,” frequently glancing down to the Advance Text until he arrived at the last paragraph. Just then, whether he consciously heard it or not, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” He hardly paused, looked up, and launched into “I Have a Dream.” Dr. King didn’t look down again until he had finished what has become known as one of the most famous and influential speeches in American history. 

It is fascinating to consider how the speech, as it was prepared, would have been received without the soaring oratory that he extemporaneously added. Even the shorter draft conveyed a powerful message: America had defaulted on the promissory note of the Declaration of Independence – but that this nation could still 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.”  We hope that message still resonates today.

The Advance Speech Mimeograph – Census of Known Copies in Institutions

  • Villanova University. On exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of African American History and Culture. This is the copy MLK had at the podium, and gave to George Raveling right after the speech.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. MLKPP.
  • Duke University, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Durham, N.C. Harry C. Boyte Family Papers.
  • The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, New York, N.Y.  Wyatt Tee Walker Collection.
  • Tulane University, New Orleans, LA. Amistad Research Center.