Martin Luther King Jr: Architect of the 21st Century

With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who've shaped modern America

Photograph © Dan Budnik / Contact Press Images

It was not going well, or at least not as well as Martin Luther King Jr. had hoped. The afternoon had been long: the crowds massed before the Lincoln Memorial were ready for some rhetorical adrenaline, some true poetry. King's task now was to lift his speech from the ordinary to the historic, from the mundane to the sacred. He was enjoying the greatest audience of his life. Yet with the television networks broadcasting live and President Kennedy watching from the White House, King was struggling with a text that had been drafted by too many hands late the previous night at the Willard Hotel. King was on the verge of letting the hour pass him by.

Then, as on Easter morning at the tomb of the crucified Jesus, there was the sound of a woman's voice. King had already begun to extemporize when Mahalia Jackson spoke up. "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin," said Jackson, who was standing only a few feet away. At Jackson's remark, the preacher left his rather uninspired text — a departure that put him on a path to speaking words of American scripture, words as essential to the nation's destiny in their way as those of Abraham Lincoln, before whose memorial King stood, and those of Thomas Jefferson, whose monument lay to the preacher's right, toward the Potomac. The moments of ensuing oratory lifted King above the tumult of history and made him a figure of history — a "new founding father," in the apt phrase of the historian Taylor Branch.

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