What Made the “I Have a Dream” Speech So Special?

August 26, 2020

minute READ 

57 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech—the speech of his lifetime.

  • The date: August 28, 1963.
  • The occasion: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • The legacy: a recording or mere transcript of this speech still moves people to tears.

Have you ever wondered where the enduring power of “I Have a Dream” comes from? Why do these words still give us goosebumps, over half a century later? What sets this speech apart from so many others?

My belief is that the answer contains a crucial lesson for the expression of your own creative genius. 

What made Dr. King's "I Have a Dream"-speech so special?

That special something wasn’t just skill.

Dr. King was undoubtedly a great speaker, proficient in using vivid language and building a strong emotional connection to his audience.

However, this alone does not explain the enduring appeal of “I Have a Dream.”

Dr. King already had strong oratory skills before the March on Washington, yet the words he spoke during that event somehow rose above all the other speeches of his life.

While his skills enhanced the delivery of his words, we cannot reduce the magic of those words to mere talent.

A speech by a great speaker is not necessarily a great speech, unless it has a lasting impact on society.

Was it the timing of "I Have a Dream"? 

We could suppose that the power of Dr. King’s words comes from timing, namely the context in which it was given. 

The massive and engaged audience, as well as the general cultural changes that were happening as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, all contributed to the power of his words.

So while it is true that timing and context mattered, they were not the only contributing factors.

Case in point: the March on Washington included speeches from a number of speakers (the “Big Ten”) — yet “I Have a Dream” stood out among all of them.

Was the genius of "I Have a Dream" something Dr. King had pre-planned? 

Dr. King’s original draft for his speech did not contain the lines related to “I Have a Dream.” He had used them in previous speeches and his adviser Wyatt Walker told him not to do it again, calling them trite and cliché.

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So, where did these brilliant lines come from?

Here's what happened during Dr. King's speech:

Toward the end of Dr. King's speech, American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson realized that his words had fallen a bit flat. She shouted to her friend from the crowd:

“Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

It was then that Dr. King departed from his prepared notes and started improvising, leaving us with the words we can all recite today.

You can see the remarkable difference between the beginning and the powerful end of his speech here:

We can only speculate what would have happened if Jackson had not shouted out, or if her friend had ignored her request. 

Dr. King's speech would have been much less impactful and our culture would have been deprived of some of the most powerful lines in recent history.

  • Isn’t it fascinating that the words we now remember were not part of his script?
  • That they were spoken in the moment, and only at the suggestion of someone else?
  • That Dr. King had spoken about his dream in previous speeches but that everything came together much more powerfully this time around?

How the "I Have a Dream"-speech shows what genius really is 

We so often think of genius as something that resides in a person — in this case, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, we could say that true genius is actually channeled through people and thus transcends them.

Throughout his whole speech, he had his great oratory skills and experience, alongside his preparation for the speech itself.

But do you know when the real magic happened?

It happened when Dr. King let go of his script.

When he opened himself up to the inspiration of the moment.

When he allowed himself to become a mouthpiece, a channel for the united vision of the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered for the social change that was happening, and for the highest aspirations of this country.

Just like Mahalia Jackson, who realized that the people needed to about her friend's dream, King did not shy away from his role in this moment. He rose to the occasion and opened himself up to what wanted to be expressed through him.

How does this relate to your own self-expression and creative genius?

Throughout our lives, the vast majority of us will not find ourselves in a situation that is as high-stakes as the one just described. Your purpose might look somewhat smaller (although there is no such thing as a small purpose). 

And yet, what we can learn from it applies to any form of self-expression, any way in which we strive to make the world a little bit better

Here’s my theory about what “I Have a Dream” can teach us:

You are at your best when you let go of the idea that genius relates to something you do, and instead realize that genius is something that is done through you.

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You and me, we don't need to have great ideas. We just need to allow great ideas to express themselves through us. We just need to share our gifts.

Dr. King's dream of a more equal society wanted to be expressed through him. It wanted to be shared with the world.

As the French poet Victor Hugo put it: "One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas."

Or, as it's more common variant goes: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

The idea expressed in Dr. King's speech was an idea whose time had come.

And everyone played a part in making the magic of that moment happen in the most powerful way possible—his adviser Wyatt Walker who told him to cut them out and his friend Mahalia Jackson who encouraged him to improvise and speak from his heart. 

It reminds me of something Carl Jung said: "People don't have ideas. Ideas have people."

What's an idea that "has you"?

What is your dream?

What's a purpose that refuses to let you go?

I'd love to hear from you in the comment section.

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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  • Thank you for reminding me of that day and how King made such an important change in his planned comments. I was a young university student and witnessed the march that day. I’ll never forget it.

    • Hi Larry,
      Thank you so much for your comment! Wow, it’s so special that you were able to witness the march (and history) in person! I can only imagine what that must have felt like. Thanks for sharing about your personal experience with those of us who weren’t there in person.

  • Thanks Bere! You can always tell when someone is speaking from the bottom of their heart. The message is clear and compelling even if their words are less perfect than planned ones. I didn’t realize this was an example of that – thank you for the story!

    • Yes, that’s so true, Emily! There’s just something very convincing and attractive about messages that come from the heart. I’m really glad you liked this example. Thanks so much for your comment.

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