Did Martin Luther King Jr. improvise his “I Have A Dream” speech? It seems that way. In fact, in the seventh paragraph of his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, King went off script. The words “I have a dream” came from the heart — not the paper in front of him. The speech had been going well. At that moment, it became legendary.

A carefully crafted speech

King, like most prominent activists, had a team of people supporting him. One of them was speechwriter Clarence B. Jones. It was his task to put together the speech the evening of Tuesday, August 27, 1963. He gathered with King and seven other individuals at the Willard Hotel.

Everyone got a chance to put their two cents in. Jones and King carefully considered their points and wrote a speech that represented their collective voice. The next morning, copies of the speech were sent to the press.

On-script and chugging along

King stuck to the game plan for the first half of the speech. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that he spends the first few minutes looking up and down at the paper. He’s reading the text word for word. Jones remembered feeling relieved that King was staying on task and following the suggestions.

Then King heard the voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson echoing in the background. “Tell ‘em about the ‘dream,’” she shouted. Few people heard her, but the whole world heard what happened next.

King’s heart takes the lead

Jones saw King’s brain shift gears instantly. King pushed the prepared speech to one side of the podium. It was time to speak from the heart, to share his dream with the world. According to Jones, “King had surrendered to the spirit of the moment.”

He improvised most of the second half of the speech, including the “I have a dream” refrain. From this point on, King rarely looks down at his notes. He went off-the-cuff to stir the souls of Americans for generations to come.