Tell ‘Em About the Dream, Martin: A Personal Reflection

January 15, 2024 Dena Jefferson

Two years ago, I wrote a blog titled Unfinished Business, which was a reflection on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time when I wrote it, I was filled with emotions: anticipation, some sadness, and a good dose of fear. 2020 and 2021 had been tumultuous years, and we were unsure of the political and social decisions and their implications yet to come. But within those emotions, one was rooted more than the rest: hope. 

Since that time, we have seen potent initiatives like the Inflation Reduction Act and Justice40 that are taking aim at environmental justice and mitigating climate change. But we’ve also seen some major court decisions that many minorities and women see as impositions on basic human rights. In one way or another, for better or worse, these policies cut to the core of the very dream that Dr. King spoke about on that fateful day in August of 1963: the dream of equality.  

But what if I told you that Dr. King almost didn’t give the speech as it is now recorded in history? 

What if I told you that one of Dr. King’s advisors, Wyatt Walker, suggested that he leave all references to “dreaming” out of his speech for fear that use of the word would seem cliché? 

I can imagine that leading up to the march on Washington, Dr. King was filled with the same emotions I was feeling when I wrote Unfinished Business: anticipation, some sadness, and a good dose of fear. And Dr. King could have given in to those emotions. Thankfully, he didn’t. On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a ...

Based on one historian’s account, Dr. King stayed up until 4 AM reading and editing that speech. And up until the moment he took the podium, he was probably still unsure of exactly what he would say.  

But strong words from the melodic voice of gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson rang out saying, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”  And we all know what happened next: Dr. King gave a speech that still echoes through the generations and serves as a rallying cry for equality everywhere. 

The big lesson here? It is so important to consider who is surrounding you during those pivotal moments in your life. Those words—“Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin”—shifted Dr. King’s approach to his speech and, in turn, altered the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson’s declaration inadvertently helped usher in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

That’s right: the voice of Mahalia Jackson affected Dr. King’s voice, which in turn impacted an entire movement. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the march, one of the original drafters of the speech and Dr. King’s personal attorney Clarence Jones said, “People can get angry all they want at America, and believe me, I can be one of America’s greatest critics. But I criticize my country because I love it so much.” And two years later, that is where I stand as well.  Am I happy about every step taken along the way? Nope. 

But have I given up on the dream? Absolutely not!   

Whether it’s achieving equality for all people or leading the clean energy revolution, I have hope for the future. I believe the roots of Dr. King’s dream are just as strong today as they’ve ever been, but we must continue to care for those roots to ensure they blossom again. We must continue to use our voices and our actions to push for equitable change, even when we don’t believe our words are reaching the mountaintops. And as Dr. King once said, “…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” The same hope and determination that was used to plant the roots will ensure that the dream can continue to blossom. 

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