"Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I have a dream' speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an 'I have a nightmare' speech instead.."
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
They continue: What we didn’t know at the time we wrote those words was that King had given an “I have a nightmare” speech. In fact, he had given it just moments before he gave his “I have a dream” speech.
The setting was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people had crowded before the Lincoln Memorial, on the Washington Mall, to hear King and other leaders rally the country to support civil rights legislation. Millions of others watched on television, where the speech was carried live by all three networks.
President John F. Kennedy had just returned from Germany; against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, he had called for freedom for those living behind the Iron Curtain. On his return, Kennedy asked King to call off the demonstration. “We want success in Congress,” the president said, “not just a big show at the Capitol.”
Kennedy’s comment tipped King into a dark mood. The worst manifestations of human nature were on display in the South—bigotry, beatings, cowardice, murder—and King was intent on making sure that white America, Kennedy included, faced up to them. And so, a few minutes before he was to speak, King leaned over to the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had been traveling the country with him, and whispered, “Before I speak I want you to sing ‘I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned.’” When Jackson told her stage manager of King’s request, he replied, “We need a song that’s a little livelier than that!” But Jackson did as King requested. “Dere is trouble all over dis world, children,” she sang. “Dere is trouble all over dis world.”
The operating metaphor in King’s nightmare speech was the debt white America owed African Americans. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, but “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” The words revealed King’s fears that the march wouldn’t be taken seriously by Congress and the White House. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” he warned. Those who underestimated the movement’s power, he said, would have a “rude awakening.” It was perhaps the darkest and most discouraged speech King ever gave.
But then something strange and wonderful happened. A voice rang out from the back of the dais. It was Mahalia Jackson. “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” She could feel that King had dwelt too long in the dark valley—he needed to bring the crowd up to the sunlit mountaintop. Having heard him give riffs of the dream speech to earlier audiences, Jackson knew just what King needed to do. “Tell them about the dream!” she cried once more.
King seemed to address his next line—”Let us not wallow in the valley of despair”—as much to himself as to the crowd. He then pattered—”I say to you today my friend”—and paused, triggering soft applause from the tired audience and buying himself the time he needed to reorganize this thoughts.
King then seemed to find the words Mahalia Jackson had tossed him, and he began the new speech. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” From there King led the hot crowd in a rapid climb out of the valley.
[W]hen we allow freedom to 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 the words “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” racial integration suddenly felt inevitable.
Even the nervous Kennedy, who was watching the speech live on television down the street, was impressed. “He’s damn good,” he told his aides. When Kennedy greeted King at the White House later that same day, the president smiled and said, “I have a dream.”
Three months later Kennedy was dead, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, surprised nearly everyone and became an aggressive pursuer of King’s dream. Over the next two years, Congress passed, and President Johnson signed, the sweeping Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. And while those laws might have been enacted no matter what speech King had given, it is unlikely that history would have unfolded as peacefully or as quickly as it did had it not been for King’s dramatic and mysterious leap from the nightmare to the dream.