“We all sat through the march, and I was trembling because there were so many people there, you couldn’t imagine. You couldn’t dare to count them. I just felt for King as he sat there waiting to be introduced. I knew that the way they listened to people who were making speeches in rallies like this one, there was always somebody in the background trailing that speech with printed material. And I knew that somebody had a pencil following every word to see whether King would make a mistake or not repeat what he had placed there on paper. And I couldn’t get to him to wink my eye or say to him, ‘Mike’—as we called him during the days of seminary—‘come on, come on, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it.’
The crowd was so great, and it seemed to me that the spirit of God came upon him at this particular time, just like it does when someone is giving a speech that is very near and dear to him. And the words just flowed. The ideas came. He was saying what was on his heart and mind, and what he had been talking about all along.
When we were in seminary together, King would walk around the hall preaching. He had more experience in preaching than some of us, although I was nine years older than he was and pastoring a small church in West Virginia. But when he became very popular he called us together and said, ‘You all must stick by me, for I am going to dismantle this society.’ And we would jokingly say to him, ‘King, if you try to dismantle this society that we’re in now, somebody’s going to shoot you. Somebody’s going to bring you down, because society is so ingrained with segregation. The culture has been born into segregation, and therefore it’s not going to change.’”
We had to get up and speak.
We had to get up and organize and
Even I became an orator
at some point.
On Aug. 28, 1963, some of the country’s most celebrated photojournalists were in the nation's capital chronicling the March on Washington. Five of those photographers—Bob Adelman, Dan Budnik, Fred Ward, Gordon Parks and Flip Schulke— captured unforgettable images of King before, during and after he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
“Martin was to be speaking in the middle. Cleveland Robinson, labor leader, and Bayard Rustin—they were just adamant. I’m listening to all the reasons they have to have it this way, and finally I said to the group of people assembled in the meeting, I said, Let me ask you something. I assume everybody in this room has heard Dr. King speak? I said, Do you really want to come after him? Do you really want to follow him? In the concert business, you know, they have an opening act and they have a main event. I said, You run the risk—if you put it this way—that people could listen to Dr. King and then get up and leave. And I said, I don’t suggest that road.
The good thing is, A. Philip Randolph, who was the godfather of the march and who everyone revered, he said, I think that Brother Jones makes a lot of sense. And I move that Brother Martin should be the last speaker, and we should give him whatever reasonable amount of time he needs.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, TIME presents a special commemorative issue—featuring Jon Meacham on King as a Founding Father of the 21st century; Richard Norton Smith on how King's words changed the nature of presidential persuasion; Michele Norris on the state of the dream today; plus Maya Angelou, Malala Yousafzai, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Shonda Rhimes, Marco Rubio, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and more on what "I have a dream" means to them. Join TIME.com to read the full issue
“As you would expect when you have a large crowd like that, people have their own mini-conversations going on. It was not a rapt audience. But I do recall clearly that when Dr. King spoke, everybody did listen. And that ‘I have a dream’—to hear it, initially, was an important experience. To hear him give that message made you believe you did have a dream, and it was very inspiring. A lot of people probably had not focused on those possibilities. We live in realities, but the image that he gave was a future. When he talked about a dream, he was looking to what could be, and it wasn’t beyond our reality to think that such things could happen.”
Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at the March on Washington was not the first time the civil rights leader had described his dream of multiracial brotherhood. King delivered versions of his “I Have a Dream” speech several times in the months leading up to the March on Washington. After leading a march of more than 100,000 people through the streets of Detroit in June 1963, King delivered a speech to a crowd in the city’s Cobo Arena that was only slightly different from his remarks in Washington two months later.