© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ahead Of King's 'Dream' speech, D.C. officials planned for riots


On this Martin Luther King holiday, we look back on the event where he delivered his most iconic speech - the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Years ago on this program, we spoke with Roger Wilkins. He was a civil rights activist, since passed away, who was at that march in 1963. We also spoke with Taylor Branch, author of books on Martin Luther King.


INSKEEP: What did people in Washington expect as that day dawned in 1963?

TAYLOR BRANCH: They expected riot and mayhem. Liquor sales were canceled in the District of Columbia for the first time since the end of Prohibition in 1933. Plasma was stockpiled. Elective surgery was cancelled. Major League Baseball canceled not one but two Washington Senators games against the Minnesota Twins, even though the stadium was four miles from the Lincoln Memorial, for fear that baseball fans would be casualties of the riot.

INSKEEP: Why did people get this anxious about what had been advertised, I'm sure, as a nonviolent civil rights march?

BRANCH: Because this was an overwhelmingly white culture and white country, and the media presumed that you couldn't assemble 100,000 Black folks in the nation's capital with political grievances without a lot of them running amok. It was a measure of our cultural separation and fear at the time. It didn't matter what people said. Life Magazine said the Capitol had the greatest case of pre-invasion jitters since the first Battle of Bull Run.

INSKEEP: Let's bring in Roger Wilkins, who was working in the U.S. government at the time in Washington, D.C., on the day of the March on Washington. What kinds of things were you hearing as that day approached?

ROGER WILKINS: I remember that Southern members of the House and the Senate, by and large, told their secretaries to stay home that day and lock the door so they wouldn't be raped. And I think that Taylor's right - the idea that this huge numbers of Black people would come, despite the fact that for years they had watched these nonviolent marchers in the South, and when there was violence, it wasn't started by the Blacks; it was started by people who opposed them.

INSKEEP: And what was it like on that day, that...

WILKINS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...This day that people had feared for so long?

WILKINS: It was astonishing. My wife and I got to the grounds of the Washington Monument early in the morning - I don't know - 9 o'clock, and it was like a church social. I mean, people were happy. People were greeting each other. Parts of families from different parts of the country were reforming and almost having little family reunions. You know, it was that kind of feeling.

INSKEEP: Taylor Branch, was it expected that Martin Luther King's speech, whatever he happened to say on that day, would be the centerpiece of the event and the thing that people would most remember?

BRANCH: His speech was by no means the focus to the degree that it has become since. I mean, many newspapers, including The Washington Post, didn't even mention his speech in their coverage the next day. But very quickly, news coverage singled out this speech that epitomized the great contrast between the fear that people had going into the march and the kind of lofty dreamlike sense of relief and celebration that the demonstration actually engendered.

INSKEEP: Well, Roger Wilkins, as best anyone can determine, did Martin Luther King go into that day expecting to use that famous refrain - I have a dream?

WILKINS: I think he did. You know, Martin, like all great orators, every speech is not something brand-new. They build on their own thought as it's come along, and they build on lines that they have used that have worked. And Martin had made some speech which was very similar to this - I believe it was in Detroit a few days before. Now, that doesn't diminish the greatness of the speech. I mean, anybody who thinks he just walked up there and said all this brilliant stuff, never having thought of it, is wrong.

INSKEEP: Taylor Branch, does your research show that there was a bit of improvisation in that moment?

BRANCH: Certainly so. And I would disagree only slightly with Roger. He was a preacher in the same sense that a jazz musician went back to things that worked, but because this was such a momentous occasion, he had for once written out a whole new speech. And he had that, and it's available to see all of its various revisions. And the final text - he got through about half of it. And in fact, you can see exactly where it broke off. He couldn't bring himself to deliver this line - and so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. And this was kind of pompous, and he wouldn't do it. And instead, he launched off into a series of riffs.

INSKEEP: Creative dissatisfaction just doesn't have quite the same ring as a refrain, does it?


BRANCH: No. The international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction - and a number of people said that Mahalia said, tell them about the dream, Martin.

INSKEEP: This is Mahalia Jackson who said it?

BRANCH: Mahalia Jackson, who had just sung, when she was standing behind Dr. King, along with lots of other people. A number of people, enough for it to be credible to me as a historical matter, say that Mahalia Jackson kept urging Dr. King to tell them about the dream.

INSKEEP: She was basically saying, play the hits, Martin; this is a big crowd.

BRANCH: That's right. She's a musician.

WILKINS: And if Mahalia, with that voice, told you to do something, you did it.


BRANCH: That's right.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: 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, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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 today.


MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) You know, I'm gonna tell my Lord...

INSKEEP: Mahalia Jackson and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington in 1963. Our guests were Roger Wilkins, the late Roger Wilkins, and Taylor Branch - the conversation in 2008.


JACKSON: (Singing) I'm going to tell my - my Lord, oh, when I get home... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.