There were 250,000 people gathered on a hot summer day. Many had traveled for days to arrive for “The March on Washington,” on August 28th, 1963. The program was an afternoon filled with music and speeches.
With the last two orators prepared to give their 5-minute speeches, Mahalia Jackson took the podium and re-captured the crowd’s attention.
Roger Mudd, with CBS News, reported after her first song: “Mahalia Jackson. And all the speeches in the world couldn’t have brought the response that just came from the hymns she sang.”
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, from the American Jewish Congress, delivered his remarks before Martin Luther King, Jr.; the final speaker stepped into history. Emily Crockett writes:
During delivery, King started improvising a bit when he reached a sentence that felt clunky. Instead of calling on the crowd to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction,” he went with: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
It was at that moment, says King’s adviser Clarence Jones, that Mahalia Jackson cried out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”
It was, Jones said, “one of the world’s greatest gospel singers shouting out to one of the world’s greatest Baptist preachers.” Jones, who was standing about 50 feet away from King during the speech, recalled that King looked over at Jackson briefly after she shouted. “Then he takes the text of the written speech that’s been prepared, and he slides it to the left side of the lectern, grabs the lectern, looks out on more than 250,000 people there assembled.” Jones remembers turning to the person next to him and saying, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
Then King started speaking completely off the cuff. That ad-lib became “I Have a Dream.”
King’s history-shaping message was inspired, in part, by Mahalia Jackson.
Inspiration Influences the Story
Inspiration is about influence. Enjoying influence with people is leadership.
Many of us believe The Story of God and humanity, the Bible, was written in response to Divine inspiration. The Word was written because of God’s influence.
Inspiration stimulates creativity. To inspire means “to fill someone with confidence and desire to do something.”
What allowed Mahalia Jackson to inspire or influence Martin’s Story? A Nation’s Story? I observe three qualities that allowed her to fill him with confidence and deliver his message. Inspiration was provided because they shared:
- Connection — they had cultivated their relationship, it was one of mutual inspiration, respect, and trust; they had a shared vision
- Discernment — they could judge the moment, seize the opportunity, and follow their intuition
- Courage — there was a lot at stake; they acted in spite of fear, it took boldness to listen and to speak
Watch the Lightning
We’ll never know what would have happened if Mahalia had not stepped into the moment with Martin. But since she did, we have a message delivered from the heart. Today, the “I have a dream” speech continues to challenge and inspire our continued pursuit of equality for all people.
King’s adviser and speechwriter, Clarence Jones said, “As I heard him speak on Wednesday, August 28th it was with such passion, it had such a timber, a certain quality … it was like watching or capturing lightning in a bottle.”
Create Space to Think
Leaders create the opportunity to get better. That requires the cultivation of an environment and culture to inspire people. Inspired people, do inspiring work and write a better Story.
- What personal relationships need your attention? Who can fill with confidence to go for it?
- What potential do you see in other people?
- How will you encourage them to write their Story?
- Where do you need boldness or courage to speak up or to listen?
Tell them about the dream,
Image: Aaron Burden via Upsplash