In a Washington Post essay to honor the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the esteemed scholar and lawyer Clarence B. Jones recalled his surprise at how King "winged it'" by departing from his prepared text at the March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963.
"The words 'I have a dream' were nowhere in it,'' Jones wrote. And Jones should know. Jones wrote a major draft of the speech the night before.
But what Jones might not know is that Washington was not King's first performance of the "Dream'' refrain which has evolved over a half-century into a classic American prose poem and cultural prayer.
King practiced it at least once before, at Detroit's Cobo Arena on June 23, 1963, more than two months before the more famous event at the Lincoln Memorial.
"I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job,'' King told a large audience in the then-new building along the Detroit River.
It was the sixth time in the Detroit speech King used "I have a dream'' to start a sentence. He did it four more times as the oration soared with now-familiar cadence heard weeks later in more polished form in Washington.
In his Post piece, Jones wrote "What could possibly motivate a man... to abandon the prepared text of his speech and begin riffing on a theme that he had used previously without generating much enthusiasm from listeners?''
But it is clear on the Detroit recording (which I treasure and love to play) that King's Detroit audience reacted enthusiastically to "I have a dream.'' Applause rises to a thunderous ovation at the conclusion.
To be sure, there are differences between the two speeches. In Detroit, King used the phrase "judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.'' In Washington, he reversed the phrases, improving the sentence.
And the repeated refrain "Let freedom ring'' that King used in Washington on a spirited and spiritual tour of the American geographical landscape is absent in the Detroit version.
King's closing words are almost identical. In Detroit, he hoped for people of all religions and races "able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'''
In Washington, King phrased it as "the words of the old Negro spiritual.'' But the message is the same and so is the response.
This is not to suggest that Jones has falsified history or his part in it. He wrote what he remembered and gave an intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of the signature event of a great historical movement.
But those of us who are proud native Detroiters sometimes feel our Motor City gets overlooked for its historical and cultural contributions.
King opened his Detroit speech by saluting "my good friend, the Reverend C.L. Franklin'' of Detroit who led the march with him down Woodward Ave. Franklin was the father of Aretha Franklin. Five years later, after King's assassination, Aretha sang at King's funeral.
Eleven years after that, the Rev. Franklin was shot in a home invasion and died after five years in a coma. Just recently, his daughter has been seriously ill. Among other things, life brings sad surprises, memorable moments and sometimes joyous voices that live on recordings beyond death.
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