While most people are familiar with the “I Have A Dream” speech, few realize that Martin Luther King Jr delivered as many as 450 speeches at more than 2500 public events during his lifetime. That number is astounding, begging the question, how could someone write so many speeches during their lifetime?
The answer is simple: he didn’t — at least not without help. Like most public speakers, MLK employed speechwriters to help his craft his speeches, even his “I Have A Dream” speech. Of course, he had a hand in shaping the speeches, taking what had been written for him and making it his own.
But Martin Luther King Jr. knew, as the best public speakers always do, that he was not the focal point his speeches. Instead, he was giving voice to the civil rights movement en masse. So he enlisted the help of other civil rights leaders to lend their words.
In this second half of our series on speeches, we will examine three prominent African American speechwriters, past and present.
Clarence B. Jones
Jones was a close advisor and personal counsel for Martin Luther King, as well as the first African American allied member of the New York Stock Exchange. Despite his other triumphs, Jones is best known as a coauthor of King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Jones had taken over as a speechwriter for King three years before the March on Washington as a result of increasing FBI interest in King and his associates forced King’s previous speechwriter, Stanley David Levison, to step away from the movement. He told Vanity Fair“I had listened to King speak so often that I could hear his cadence in my head and ears.”
J. Terry Edmunds
Edmunds has the distinction of being the very first African-American Speechwriter in the White House, although Edmunds didn’t realize that himself after first taking the job during the Clinton Administration.
He tells Gothamist,”I thought that I had been given an opportunity to do something momentous, important and hopefully fun. After being on the job for a while, getting my feet wet and what have you, it did gradually dawn on me.”
Edmunds had intended to be a journalist in college but struggled to find work, pointing out that the jobs simply weren’t available in the early 70s. So Edmund took a job as in public relations. Slowly he became involved in politics, working as press secretary for then-Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, and then as the speechwriter for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala. From there, he moved to the White House.
While Georgia state Representative Abrams is best known for her current campaign for Alabama’s Gubernatorial race, she began her career working as a typist while in high school. However, she quickly came to the attention of campaign leadership when the tweaks she made were considered so good that she was hired as a speechwriter at the young age of 17.
While Rep. Abrams seems to have transitioned into the one giving the speeches, it is no doubt that she still pays close attention to the words and message, telling the Guardian “We need good politicians who actually respect government and understand how all the different pieces work to run.”
Whether you are talking about the “I Have A Dream” Speech or Obama’s Inauguration, speeches have always been at the very heart of the civil rights movement and human rights in general. Leaders like Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Barack Obama have long been lauded for their ability to deliver monumental speeches. Hopefully we have helped shine light on the African Americans who write them.