January 14, 2023

The MLK speech that almost wasn’t the “I Have a Dream” Speech – and the one that might have been…


The observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on the third Monday of January each year, always makes me think of his most quoted words: “I have a dream…”

After doing some research on the story behind those famous words, I find them even more memorable.

August 28th is generally cited as the anniversary of King’s use of “I have a dream…” because he spoke them in the moving, high-profile address he gave at the historic “March on Washington” on August 28, 1963.  

What he said that day is rightly considered to be one of the greatest speeches in history.

It is generally referred to as the “I Have a Dream” Speech, due to King’s repeated use of the phrase during the last third of his remarks. 

But if King had stuck to the written version of the speech he’d prepared it would be known by a different name.

The typed copy that his aides gave to the press that morning and that King carried to the podium was titled “Normalcy – Never Again.”

The words “I have a dream” were not in it.

In fact, King had consciously decided not to include that phrase because he’d used it before in several other speeches.

He and his aides thought it might seem stale.

He had used the phrase recently in another high-profile speech at a major civil rights rally in Detroit on June 23, 1963.

In that speech he repeated “I have a dream” numerous times in a series of sentences that are very similar to those he later used in the most famous part of his August 28 speech in Washington.

As noted by many newspaper and magazine articles and the book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream, by Gary Younge, King was inspired to add “I have a dream” to his Washington speech by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Jackson had sung two rousing gospel songs shortly before King started speaking and was standing behind him.

During the first eleven minutes of his speech, King basically delivered his prepared remarks.

To people who had heard him speak at other events, and to King himself, it seemed like a good speech, but not quite a great one.

Then, as recounted in Younge’s book, something remarkable happened:

King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration. “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana,” he said. Then, behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”…Jackson had seen him deliver the dream refrain in Detroit in June and clearly it had moved her.

“Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed,” King said [continuing his prepared remarks]. Jackson shouted again: “Tell ‘em about the dream.” 

King knew what she meant.

He stopped giving his written speech, set the written text aside on the podium, and began talking extemporaneously. Or, more accurately, almost extemporaneously.

When you compare the text of the last part of King’s August 28 speech with the text of his June 23 speech, you can see that some of the most famous parts of what came to be called the “I Have a Dream” Speech were based on lines from the earlier address.

Of course, this does nothing to diminish the amazing eloquence and impact of what King said on the 28th.

But it is interesting to compare some of the parallel language in the two speeches side by side.

If King had not recycled parts of the Detroit speech at the March on Washington, his speech on August 28 might now be called his “Normalcy – Never Again” Speech. And, his Detroit speech might be called his “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Here are some of the parallel lines from both speeches…

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
speech in Washington, D.C.
August 28, 1963
(Click here to read the entire speech)

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
speech in Detroit
June 23, 1963
(Click here to read the entire speech)

I say to you today…I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal”…I have a dream this afternoon.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children…will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted…and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

And when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

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Related reading…

December 29, 2022

“Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

On December 29, 1890, U.S. Seventh Cavalry troopers gunned down more than 200 Lakota Indians — including men, women and children — at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Army initially called it “The Battle of Wounded Knee.”

In truth, it wasn’t a battle.

Today, it’s generally called what it really was — the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The famous quote that’s now associated with this tragic event is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

But those words were not originally written with the infamous massacre in mind.

They come from the poem “American Names,” written by American poet Stephen Vincent Benét and first published in the October 1927 issue of the Yale Review.

Benét’s poem is a patriotic ode expressing his love for American place names.

As he explained in the first verse:

        “I have fallen in love with American names,
       The sharp names that never get fat,
       The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
       The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
       Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.”

Books of quotations often include this first verse from “American Names” and the final verse, which contains the famous line about Wounded Knee.

They usually omit the fourth verse, which blithely drops the N-word:

       “I will fall in love with a Salem tree
       And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
       I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
       And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
       I am tired of loving a foreign muse.”

Benét’s seemingly nostalgic use of the old racial slur “blue-gum nigger” and other lines in the poem indicate that he was enamored with the romantic sound of many American place names and was oblivious to (or didn't care about) any potential negative connotations they might have.

The poem’s mention of Wounded Knee is simply as one of those good old American place names, which Benét deems superior to “foreign” names.

In the last verse he suggests that the spirits of American soldiers killed in Europe during the First World War could not find peace in their burial grounds over there.

Speaking in the voice of a dead American soldier, Benét ended the poem with these lines:

        “I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
       I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
       You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
       You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
       I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
       Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

It was long after the publication of “American Names” that its final line became associated with the Wounded Knee massacre.

That literary connection was made in 1970, when American historian and novelist Dee Brown used Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as the title of a groundbreaking book that tells the history of the American West from the Indians’ perspective.

Buffy Sainte-Marie singingAfter the publication of Brown’s book, the phrase “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” became forever linked to the massacre that took place at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

It has also been used to poetically encapsulate a broader sense of loss, sadness and outrage over the historic mistreatment Indians in North America.

Perhaps the most poignant use was by the great Canadian Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

In 1990, she wrote a song titled “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” which comments on the continuing abuse of Indians and Indian rights by governments and big corporations.

The chorus goes:

      “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
       Deep in the earth
       Cover me with pretty lies
       Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

You can read the full lyrics of Buffy’s deeply emotional song here and see a video of her performing it live by clicking this link or the photo of her at right.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was originally on her album Coincidence and Likely Stories (1992) and is also included on her compilation album Up Where We Belong (1996).

I think it’s one of the greatest protest songs ever written, by one of the greatest of the many great singer/songwriters who started out in the 1960s folk music scene.

I understand that Stephen Vincent Benét is considered to be a great poet and that many people like his poem “American Names.”

Personally, I am moved far more by Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and by Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

If you listen to that song and read that book, or watch the HBO adaptation of the book, you will have a better understanding why some people view Benét’s gushingly patriotic poem as “pretty lies.”

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Comments? Corrections? Questions? Email me or post them on my Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading, viewing and listening…

October 01, 2022

“Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.”

The most famous line used by American humorist
Will Rogers when he poked fun at the latest antics of politicians or commented on other recent news stories was “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” 

Many books and websites cite the September 30, 1923 edition of The New York Times as the source of this quip. It did appear on that date in a newspaper column Rogers wrote and it is certainly his most famous use in print.

However, Rogers actually began using the quip years earlier in his live stage performances.

It gained initial fame when he used line — and variations of it — during his appearances in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic shows in the fall of 1915.

In those live stage performances, Rogers would stand on the stage dressed in his cowboy outfit, leisurely twirling a lariat, while he talked about stories he’d seen in the news.

He typically started his Midnight Frolic monologues by saying something like:

       “Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Of course, just about everything he said after that was funny.

In December of 1922, Rogers began writing a weekly column for the McNuaght Syndicate titled “Slipping the Lariat Over.”

It was published in The New York Times and eventually in 600 other daily and weekly newspapers.

Rogers’ column was like a written version of his stage show monologues. He would note recent items in the news, then make slyly witty remarks about them. His first use of the “all I know...” catchphrase in “Slipping the Lariat Over” was in his  September 30, 1923 column — which is why that date is cited by so many books and websites.

In that week’s column, Rogers commented on news stories which had speculated that a recent earthquake in Japan was the cause of an accidental grounding of U.S. Navy ships near New York City and various other unusual events.

Rogers wrote in his usual dry, folksy manner:

     “Well, all I know is what I read in the Papers. That Japanese Earthquake, in addition to being the greatest calamity in the history of the World, even at the time that it happened, has, according to Newspapers and Experts, not reaped half of its destruction yet. Every day something happens and we don’t know exactly just what it is, and it will turn out in the Morning Paper to be the Earthquake in Japan that caused it.
       We lost 7 Self Destroyers on the rocks just above here the other day. People thought at first that it might have been a Fog, but it wasn’t; it was the earthquake in Japan.”

Later in that column Rogers humorously praised fighter Luis Firpo for not blaming his defeat in a recent boxing match on the earthquake in Japan.

He added:

     “I read where Will Hays went to Europe with Ambassador Harvey [the US ambassador to Great Britain]. Now I don’t know if that was Politics or the Earthquake — either one is equally destructive.”

Rogers went on to use “all I know is what I read in the papers,” with minor variations, in many following “Slipping the Lariat Over” columns.

His column was hugely popular and he continued writing it until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935.

Rogers once said about the success of his newspaper column:

     “When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”

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Related reading, listening -- and a t-shirt with an updated slogan…

September 19, 2022

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In many books of quotations and on thousands of websites H.L. Mencken is credited with the famous quote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Most sources fail to mention that this “quote” by “The Sage of Baltimore” is actually the traditional paraphrase of what Mencken actually wrote — not a true quote.

It’s based on something the acerbic journalist, editor and social critic said in his column in the September 18, 1926 edition of Baltimore’s major daily newspaper, The Sun.

Mencken’s column was syndicated and published in many other newspapers after appearing in The Sun. The next day, September 19, 1926, it appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune and other newspapers around the country.

Mencken titled that entry in his column “Notes on Journalism.”

His topic was a recent trend in the American newspaper business: “tabloid newspapers” that were geared toward uneducated readers, including those Mencken described as “near-illiterates.”

Mencken noted that tabloids had several advantages over traditional daily newspapers like The Baltimore Sun.

They were lighter and less bulky than daily newspapers, which had “two or three sections and weigh a pound or more.”

Thus, in addition to being less formal and easier to read than most dailies, tabloids could be “distributed much more quickly than the larger papers.”

“A boy on a motorcycle,” Mencken wrote, “can carry a hundred copies of even the bulkiest of them to a remote junction in ten or twenty minutes, but the old style papers have to go by truck, which is slower.”

In his usual dry way, Mencken also poked fun at the idea that most people wanted the content of newspapers to be more substantive and intellectual than what tabloids typically offered.

He opined that when a tabloid became successful the owner often tried to make it more respectable and “reach out for customers of a higher sophistication.”

Mencken said that was a mistake and, near the end of column, summed up why by writing the words that were later turned into the shorter famous “quote” about underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

His actual words were:

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Over time, this longer quote came to be paraphrased and misquoted, most commonly in the form “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In the column, Mencken continued his thoughts about the public’s choices in reading matter and politicians by adding:

“The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

Looking around at the media and political landscape today, Mencken’s opinion might be deemed more prescient than ever.

Editor’s note: Thanks to reader James C. Morrison Jr. for the note clarifying publication dates of Mencken’s “Notes on Journalism” column!

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Related reading, listening and a Mencken quote coffee mug…


September 01, 2022

“We must love one another or die.”

September 1, 1939
is now known as
the day when World War II started.

On that day, Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his military forces to invade neighboring Poland.

He claimed it was an act of self defense, necessary to protect German citizens and the territorial rights of Germany.

“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes,” Hitler claimed, in a proclamation he issued that day. “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.”

Nobody could know at the time that it was the beginning of what would become a horrific worldwide conflict in which 60 million people would die.

But many people who heard the ominous news recognized it as the start of something very bad.

One of them was British author and poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973).

It led him to write a poem reflecting his thoughts upon hearing the news that day.

He initially titled it “September: 1939.”

But the title was changed to “September 1, 1939” when it was first published in New Republic magazine on October 18, 1939.

One line in the poem became an oft-cited quotation: “We must love one another or die.”

It comes at the end of the next to last verse:

       “All I have is a voice
        To undo the folded lie,
        The romantic lie in the brain
        Of the sensual man-in-the-street
        And the lie of Authority
        Whose buildings grope the sky:
        There is no such thing as the State
        And no one exists alone;
        Hunger allows no choice
        To the citizen or the police;
        We must love one another or die.”

“September 1, 1939” is an eloquent condemnation of totalitarian governments and war; a plea for human empathy and peace.

Soon after being published, it became famous.

But Auden himself soon decided it was sappy and self-indulgent, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.”

In 1945, when a major collection of Auden’s was published, he insisted on cutting the entire stanza that ended with the “love one another” line. And, in the 1950s, he started refusing to let the poem be printed at all.

He did give special permission to include it in the 1955 edition of The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse. But he had the famous line changed, inserting the word and in place of or, so it read “We must love one another and die.”

He later said that the original line was “a damned lie! We must die anyway.”

Nonetheless, it was his original line that remained famous.

It was later recycled — infamously — during the 1964 presidential campaign, in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 TV attack ad against Barry Goldwater, called the Daisy ad.”

That pioneering negative ad was designed to scare the bejeesus out of voters by painting Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger who would be likely to start a nuclear war if he became president.

In it, a pretty little girl is shown in a field picking petals off a daisy and counting.

Suddenly, an announcer is heard giving a missile-style countdown, followed by shots of a nuclear bomb explosion and mushroom cloud and the voice of Lyndon Johnson saying: “These are the stakes — to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

At the end of the spot, the announcer says ominously: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The Daisy ad debuted on Labor Day evening, September 7, 1964, during NBC-TV’s showing of the movie David and Bathsheba.

It was so shocking and so negative for the time that it created a huge hubbub in the press and was only aired during the campaign that one time.

However, the point of the spot and the debate it helped stoke over whether Goldwater could be trusted to have his finger on the nuclear trigger benefited Johnson, who won the election in a landslide on November 3, 1964.

Auden was not a fan of Johnson, Goldwater or politicians in general. The political use of a version of his words “We must love one another or die” probably made him dislike the line even more.

Yet it remains his best-known bit of verse. And, the TV ad in which Lyndon Johnson spoke a version of it remains one of the most famous political commercials of all time.

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