Deconstructing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream : Code Switch How does a great orator develop his speeches? Before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic address at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, he gave speeches in Detroit and Newark, N.J., that tested the ideas and language of "I Have a Dream."

Deconstructing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream

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In August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the legendary address known as the "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. But that was not the first time King had spoken of his dream of equality and brotherhood between the races or an end to the violence in the battle for civil rights.

As part of our series on the summer of 1963, NPR's Allison Keyes visited Detroit. Fifty years ago today, King gave a speech there that addressed many of those themes quite differently.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We want all of our rights. We want them here, and we want them now.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The throng of people gathered in and around Detroit's Cobo Hall clapped and shouted as King spoke at one of the nation's largest civil rights demonstrations on June 23, 1963.


KING: I have a dream this afternoon...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have a dream.

KING: ...that one day...

KEYES: Organizers of The Walk to Freedom wanted to speak out against the brutality faced by civil rights activists in the South. They also wanted to address the inequities in jobs, housing and education faced by blacks in the North. King's speech dealt with it all.


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

KEYES: The speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit may sound familiar to those who have heard his speech in August that year at the March on Washington. But the Detroit speech was tailored especially for this city with a long history of civil rights activism.


KING: And one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.

KEYES: This speech, given just two weeks after the assassination of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers is more pointed in its message.


KING: Before the victory is won, some like Medgar Evers may have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive.

GLORIA MILLS: I was - just turned 14 and, of course, hadn't seen a crowd like that in my life. And it was just thrilling.

KEYES: Gloria Mills was there that day as more than 125,000 people flowed down Woodward Avenue. She looks out at the street from a Starbucks that stands near the beginning of the route and remembers the dense crowd marching toward Cobo Arena.

MILLS: I can still feel the chills from listening to that man speak because the timing and then his leadership. We just knew that we were on the precipice of something very, very important.

KEYES: Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, says Martin Luther King Jr. had given a similar speech in Newark, New Jersey, in January of 1963.

LONNIE BUNCH: Often, King would try out themes.

KEYES: Bunch says King knew it was critical to have the right tone, and King knew the rhythm he wanted and the story he wanted to tell by the time it came to the March on Washington.

BUNCH: While there's something wonderful about imagining it as if it sprung whole from the head of Zeus, it really is part of a long months work and study to get it just right.

KEYES: At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, African-American history professor Stephen Ward says people shouldn't think of King's speech in Detroit as a preview of his words at the March on Washington.

STEPHEN WARD: I don't see it as the same speech. I think he was giving a speech for each context.

KEYES: Ward notes that the Detroit speech comes right after major events in the battle for civil rights, including President Kennedy's address supporting civil rights legislation. The Washington, D.C., speech came in a climate where organizers didn't want to do anything to make it more difficult for Kennedy and his allies.

WARD: In D.C., he's speaking to a national audience in the nation's capital, trying to push for the civil rights legislation. In Detroit, he's speaking to a Detroit audience where civil rights legislation had always been a goal. But this realization, this materiality is different at that point.

KEYES: Ward says like many preachers and civil rights activists, King would use some of the same language and ideas in different places. And he believes the way most people call the Washington address the "I Have a Dream" speech limits how they think of it.

WARD: No. It was his March on Washington speech which included the "I Have a Dream" oration, an idea which he gave, at least to Detroit, probably a few other places, because those were things that he was thinking about and he was communicating and sharing.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: What do we want?


When do we want it?


KEYES: The NAACP in Detroit co-sponsored the 50th anniversary celebration of the Walk to Freedom. President Wendell Anthony says it was about trying to continue King's work against issues including voter suppression and racism that continue to plaque his city.

THE REV. WENDELL ANTHONY: Dr. King was about bringing folk together. So the fact that we leave him on the mountaintop dreaming is our fault. He wouldn't want to be there. He wants to be back down in the valley working.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News.


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