“The ‘Dream’ was not an ethereal idea,” Clarence Jones writes, “it was grounded.” As Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lawyer and speech writer, Jones would seem well-positioned to make that judgment. The book, written with Stuart Connelly, serves to recall just how grounded King’s words were.
The speech that punctuated 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is regarded as one of the finest and most important speeches in the history of American rhetoric—a transcendent sermon from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that still inspires a nation half a century later. But here, Jones recounts the practical details—the logistics, politics, egos, personalities and realities of that day and that moment, up to and including the process and paperwork necessary to copyright King’s eternal words to prevent others from profiting from them. Some of Jones and Connelly’s story, notably, is reconstructed from FBI memos drawn up to record the surveillance King and others were subject to.
Jones helped draft much of what King said that day, but the crescendo—from “I have a dream” to “free at last”—was improvised, inspired on the spot by a cry from the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson watching nearby. Even that was grounded in a desire for something real. “The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is really a call to action,” Jones writes. “It was designed, even in improvisation, to make people take a hands-on approach to transforming its vision into daily reality.”
On that note, Jones moves to consider the election of Barack Obama, the reality of race and wealth in America, and whether Martin Luther King’s dream has been fulfilled. The lesson in Behind the Dream is that greatness demands preparation and detail. And it is demonstrated not in eloquence, but in action.