Of all the events contributing to the powerful and many-faceted legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the speech he gave at the March on Washington in 1963 is probably the most famous. The dream he articulated to and for our nation has echoed among us ever since he described it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The challenges posed by the truths he shared that day remain with us, and many acknowledge it as one of the most influential orations of the 20th century.
Famously, the speech he gave was not the speech he wrote. There had been a lot of disagreement among his advisors about content and tone in the weeks and months leading up to the march. Some recommended that he offer an outline of policy demands. Others pressed for the use of metaphor. Opinions differed widely enough that agreement on a final draft proved elusive—even up to the twelve hours before he was scheduled to speak.
Dr. King had asked Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to perform at the event. After she sang, she took her place on the podium with the group standing behind the great civil rights leader. Dr. King started to speak from his notes. But at one point he paused, and Ms. Jackson took the opportunity to say, loud enough so that he could hear, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” In that moment, he shifted his papers to one side, went “off script,” and delivered one of the most iconic speeches ever given.
It’s humbling to realize that even a giant like Martin Luther King, Jr. was beholden to the support and encouragement of those around him. And inspiring to realize that even the most radical accomplishments are entwined with the influence of others. Writing to his good friend after the event, Dr. King gave her credit for her impact: “Millions of people all over this country have said it was my greatest hour. I do not know, but if it was, you, more than any single person helped make it so.” In a subsequent interview, Ms. Jackson responded with these words: “What can we do but help each other?”