57 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech—the speech of his lifetime.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It reminds me of something Carl Jung said: "People don't have ideas. Ideas have people."
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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