LEWISTON – Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream” almost wasn’t, British author Gary Younge told an MLK Day audience at Bates College on Monday.

In the hours before King gave his famous 1963 speech, members of his team urged him not to say that he had a dream, Younge said.

His chief of staff, Wyatt T. Walker, told him: “’You’ve done it too many times already. It’s trite.’ Historically that turned out not to be great advice,” said Younge, whose latest book is “Reclaiming King’s Dream: Decoding the Myths and the Meaning of the Civil Rights Era.”

Much was riding on what King would say. While many Americans had heard him talk, most had not heard him give a speech; this would be his introduction, Younge said. Some blacks thought King was too tame.

As King prepared with his staff, “they went backward and forward on what he might say. They wanted something on par with Gettysburg,” Younge said. “We know all of this about their conversations because the FBI was kind enough to record it for us,” Younge said as the audience laughed.

King, a Baptist preacher who gave 350 speeches in 1963, had often used the “dream” refrain. His staff wanted something fresh.


When King began his speech that day, he at first uncharacteristically stuck to text written by staffer Clarence Jones. Sitting behind him was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. As he went on, she spoke to him.

“’Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,’” Younge recalled Jackson saying. Jackson and King were close, Younge said. When he was sad he called her. She comforted him with song. King continued his speech. Jackson continued her coaching: “’Tell them about the dream, Martin,’” Younge said she told King.

Suddenly there was a change in Martin’s demeanor.

“King pushed the text to his left. His body posture turned from a lecturer to a preacher,” Younge said, recalling the words of Clarence Jones. “Jones turns to the person next to him and says, ‘These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.’”

Then King said, “’I have a dream,’ at which point Wyatt T. Walker, who was in the crowd, said ‘Oh shit! He’s doing the dream,’” Young said to more audience laughter.

In that era, King had much help with the civil rights movement that brought an end to segregation, Younge said.


One example was Franklin McCain, who in 1960 was a college student despondent about not enough done to improve equality. McCain, who died Jan. 9 in Greensboro, N.C., was one of four black youths who made history by sitting in a whites-only section of a Woolworth’s lunch counter, Younge said.

Younge interviewed McCain for one of his books. He said McCain told him, “’The worst thing that could happen to us is the Klan would kill us.’”

When McCain sat in the whites-only section, “’I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration,’” Younge recalled him saying. “’I felt in this life nothing else mattered. If there’s a heaven, I got there for a few moments.’”

Thousands of others paved the path. The number of protests “reached a critical mass,” Younge said. In the weeks before King’s speech there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests.

“Such conditions made a march on Washington possible.” For the era, “it was an audacious act,” Younge said.

The atmosphere in Washington, D.C., about the march was fear, he said. Authorities worried about violence. President John F. Kennedy tried to discourage the march, asking organizers to call it off. Alcohol sales were banned. Baseball games and police leaves were canceled. Thousands of police and soldiers were at the ready.


“It was a campaign, ‘Operation Steep Hill,” Younge said.

Funniest of all was that the Department of Justice planted a kill switch on the microphone where King spoke, Younge said. If they didn’t like how things were going, they planned to turn off the microphone and play a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” Younge said.

Organizers hoped 100,000 people would show up. Far more, 250,000, turned out. “It was like rivers of people,” U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Monday at Bates College. He said he was 19 when he attended the march, he said.

Years later, members of Martin Luther King’s team said the speech was good, but didn’t expect it to make history. When King was assassinated in 1968, he had grown increasingly unpopular, marginalized for his calls of change for economic justice, Younge said.

Yet in a 1999 poll, Americans were asked who was the greatest person of the century. “Mother Theresa came in first, King second,” Younge said.

He shared how that happened.


After King’s death, Americans had to decide how King would be remembered. He could not be remembered for his call for a massive redistribution of wealth to help the poor, or as a man who rallied against America’s military, Younge said.

But, he said, no one disagreed on “what I call the most elegant articulation of the end of American apartheid. It’s the safest way to remember him.”

Even though the “whites-only” signs are gone, racism still lives, Younge said, citing statistics of gaps between whites and blacks in income, employment and incarceration.

King wanted systematic changes to fuel equality, Younge said. “He did not dream of better people. He dreamt of a better system.”

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