"Tell Them About the Dream, Martin!"

Using Primary and Secondary Sources to Examine the Origins of I Have a Dream

The Origins of "I Have a Dream"

Dr. Martin Luther King's most famous speech is undoubtedly "I Have a Dream."  For many Americans, "I Have a Dream" summed up the struggles and hopes of the Civil Rights Movement, and it has become a touchstone in understanding race in America.

However, "I Have a Dream" was not the planned the speech.  Instead, Dr. King had prepared a very different set of remarks — a script that he discarded in the moment.  As Clarence B. Jones recalls, 

One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed U.S. slaves, “the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King intoned. 

Mahalia Jackson: The Gospel Singer Who Shouted "Tell Them About the Dream, Martin!"

As an inspired and inspiring gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson was frequently called upon to give musical voice to the Civil Rights Movement.  On the stage as Dr. King began his prepared remarks.  But then she called out "Tell them about the dream, Martin!"  It was her words that led to the speech so well known today.

To fully understand Jackson's role in "I Have a Dream," we need more information about her relationship with the Civil Rights Movement and her connection with Dr. King.  Here are a selection of sources to help us better make these connections.

Mahalia Jackson Sings Two Hymns (Primary Source)

As the "Queen of Gospel," Mahalia Jackson was asked to perform at the March on Washington to be the voice for the movement.  The hymns she sang on the day of the march may not tell us directly about Dr. King's speech, but they do indicate the tone of the event.  Pay close attention to the choice of hymn and the choice of wording.  What messages are being given here?

Here, we get a sense of Jackson's role at Civil Rights Movement events — as a primary source,  this video provides direct images.  But this alone doesn't explain connection between Jackson and Dr. King.  To better understand the full context, we need secondary sources

This article is particularly helpful because it covers Jackson's influence on Dr. King, the ideas that had been considered for the speech itself, and Clarence B. Jones's recollection of when Jackson called out to Dr. King.

Note that Mahalia Jackson isn't mentioned by name in the title — instead, the title uses Martin Luther King to draw in readers, and only then is it mentioned that the "Queen of Gospel" inspired Dr. King to change his planned remarks.  Rhetorically, this appeals to the wide audience of readers who recognize Dr. King and "I Have a Dream," but for whom Mahalia Jackson's name is unfamiliar.  In doing so, it also underplays the role that Jackson played in the Civil Rights Movement.

Mahalia Jackson's Career

Recalling Mahalia Jackson on All Things Considered (Secondary Source)

In these clips of Jackson's singing and interviews of those who knew her, we get a first-hand portrait of the power of her voice and personality.

Recorded NPR Interviews with Clips of Jackson's Singing:

Clarence B. Jones

As an adviser and speechwriter to Dr. King, Clarence B. Jones played a key role in helping formulate the planned remarks.  He was present on the stage when Dr. King changed the script, and he remembers the exact moment when Mahalia Jackson called out "Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

Our first source to consider is a brief video interview with Jones.  Here, he recounts the experience of being on stage as Mahalia Jones calls out "Tell Them About the Dream, Martin!"

This source is particularly moving because it features Jones's presence on screen, and then adds in clips from the March on Washington to emphasize his points.  This editing doesn't cross the line into a secondary source because the entire clip is of Jones's recollection in his own words, but we should be aware that production choices have been involved.  This interview took place decades after "I Have a Dream" — in some cases, memories can fade.  However, the clarity and precision with which he recalls "I Have a Dream" indicates high reliability in his memories.

Brennan Center: "Remembering 'I Have a Dream" (Primary Source)

This is a different interview with Jones, now recorded for us in text form.  Because we have Jones's uninterrupted words — without editorial comment — this counts as a primary source.

As Jones describes Dr. King's speech, "We caught lightning in a bottle, because the right man spoke the right words to the right people at the right time."

Comparing Secondary Sources for Clarence B. Jones

Secondary sources are important because they provide not only the words of those directly involved in events, but the context and analysis of individuals speaking from outside an event.  However, the nature of secondary sources creates 

This source centers around an interview with Jones in his office in 2014.  Although much of the text is directly taken from Jone's own words — he is quoted extensively here — this is a secondary source because

The Legacy of "I Have a Dream"

Musical Dedication to Mahalia Jackson: "Tell Them About the Dream" by Laura Vecchione