Bill Perry, who traveled to the March on Washington from New York, had only seen brief images of King.
“We were laying on the grass when this cat started to speak. And I can remember his voice—it was a surprise, kind of deeper than I had expected. He was shorter than I expected. The microphone blocked him. He just started talking. Within a few sentences, people around us started paying attention. This cat was worth listening to! You could feel a change in the crowd.
“King had a standard black Baptist minister’s style. You kind of ease people, get people to go along with you. My cousin Carl, a black Baptist minister, is a notable guy in a pulpit. It’s the same general style. The first words I really remember [was King’s line that America had defaulted on its promise to people of color—that blacks got promissory note] marked “insufficient funds.” That really got our attention. There’s an unconscious feeling that we have paid our dues—we had given our money and blood and children. How dare you say you can’t take care of our needs? How can there be insufficient funds? You could feel a head nodding and “amens” in the audience. Whatever King was doing, he hit on all the right notes for people sitting on the grass. King recognized this was a big moment. I’m not sure he anticipated the reaction he got. People were really responsive. He turned the crowd on, but the crowd also turned him on.
Will Campbell remembers the day he met King.
"I was still at Ole Miss. I just wanted to know what was going on. Martin was being tried on some trumped-up charge in Montgomery. He was found guilty and given some silly suspended sentence. The courthouse was close to his church. I followed him out and saw these hecklers and I heard him say at one point, ‘I love you. Do you live me?’ [The heckler responded], ‘Oh, f— you.’ Martin went on to his office. I went to his office and asked the secretary, ‘I never met Dr. King and I’d like to meet him.’ He came out and embraced me. I said, ‘I’m a little white boy from Mississippi, a Baptist like you, and I want to know, do you love me?’ He said, ‘You know I do,’ and he embraced me.” Dorothy Cotton remembers King’s ability to speak without notes as a great advantage in connecting with the crowd.
"Martin was a poet. Sometimes I can get so caught up in the rhythm of the language and his ability to quote the philosophers and theologians and scripture, and bring these ideas forward from leaders from long ago. It was always was impressive. He had great recall. He didn’t have his nose in a book all the time. There was something about the energy he got from a crowd that excited or motivated him and the poetry came.
“He was always best when he did not have a [text] in front of him. Sometimes he would start with his usual, wonderful Baptist preacher opening and then a word or two from the manuscript, when the spirit got to him he would put the manuscript aside and speak from his heart.
“People would only remember the phrase ‘I have a dream.’ I challenge college students to remember other passages: ‘From the prodigious mountains of New Hampshire . . . . Let freedom ring”—that’s powerful and provocative and makes a statement about what’s going on.
John Takiss remembers King’s connection with the crowd.
“It was the most amazing speech and the thrall of the crowd, all pulled in like one very large, one person. The rhythm of his speech, the intonation, it was just so overwhelming. It was the kind of thing I was hoping Barack Obama would pull off in his inaugural moment. I remember shaking King’s hand and thinking, ‘What a big hand he has.'"
Elsa Rael, watched the spectacle with wonder.
“When King spoke, the roar was phenomenal. The kids were brandishing the signs in the trees. I still have the signs: “Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work.” There weren’t too many children, but I brought two of my own kids and a friend. They were very excited. I was very happy my husband didn’t put up a stink. If I felt it was that important, then he had to say yes. I thought there was going to be a humongous crowd, and who is going to mess around with a humongeous crowd? The Army? It didn’t make sense at all. We might run into trouble, and if we did we were going to stay close to each other. It was a chore and a half to keep track of three kids, but I knew where they were at all times.
Ray Kemp was stunned.
“My response was, ‘Holy s—, this is the real deal. This is what a prophetic proclamation looks like.’”
Matthew Little was too.
“He had a way of grabbing the audience and making them spellbound. It took a few minutes to come to your senses. I was speechless.”
Marcus Wood immediately recognized the transformational appeal of the dream anaphora.
“King’s speech was at a different level. He went beyond the level of the prophets. You don’t read where they say I have a dream. The only time you have a dream is in the book of Daniel. When he said ‘I have a dream,’ he lifted it to a higher level. I was captivated by the dream. I didn’t know whether or not it was the closing remarks or whether. But he summed up the whole thing in the dream, so I knew he had been thinking about for some time. People react to dreams more than they react to your thoughts.
Floyd McKissick Jr. remembers how King treated him as a child.
“King was always somebody very kind, very loving. As a child he treated me as if I was his own child. He would hold my hand and we’d go some place with a burger. I saw him laughing and joking as much as anything.
Gladys McNatt, who came to the March from New Jersey, holds an enduring image of King in her mind.
“I remember him standing and putting that hand up: ‘Let freedom ring!’ He was just so poetic and so real. There were not too many children. But there were children lined up all along the road, and we saw them waving flags.
Ramsey Clark later talked with Coretta King about the speech.
“I’m not sure that many would have realized at the time how great it was. Anybody would agree it was one of the good speeches. Mrs. King said he stayed up all night working on it, and she felt guilty that she let him stay up all night working on it. She told me that later on. I worked on the center later. She had known him to make a lot of speeches. They came up the day before and they were in a hotel and she said she stayed up as long as she could and finally went to sleep. He was anxious about the speech.
Rita Bender remembers that young people were critical of King, but the “Dream” speech won them over for at least that afternoon.
“A lot of the folks in the trenches really viewed King in Mississippi as something of a coward. He certainly was not particularly anxious to come into Mississippi, either in terms of organizing or coming himself. He rarely came in. The guys who were living it here, that’s one of the reasons for some of the SNCC folk’s [cynicism].
Sam Clark saw that King won the crowd over right away.
"When he started, it started so powerful, you could hear a pin drop. All these people. Every thing he said, I didn’t understand. What got me [was the line about], a ‘check came back marked insufficient funds.’ I asked my father, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means there's nothing there.’ When he said, ‘Let freedom ring,’ that also touched me.
"I remember my father, on the way back, he said, ‘Never let anyone judge you by the color of your skin, but the content of your character.’ People of all races speak to me because thats how I was raised, not raised to live in Harlem or the black community. My father worshipped Martin Luther King, had a photo of him in the house. My father taught us about Mahatma Gandhi also, and how he influenced a Negro.”
Jack Takayanagi remembers how small King was physically.
"King wasn’t tall in stature. He was barely looking over the podium. But once he spoke he had such a way about him, it was very captivating. The anticipation was high. Everything built toward that moment. It wasn’t as if people just gathered around the pond. By the time King spoke, the anticipation was so high. At the moment you’re more moved by the moment than by the words. ‘Free at last, free at last’—that was the whole speech in speech in itself.
Timuel Black was emotionally overwhelmed.
“When Dr. King spoke, I just began to cry. I was in the crowd with my children and friends. I was close enough to see and hear all of the speeches, but Dr. King took over. For me, it articulated the way we felt about the past and our efforts in the present to build a better future. We were exhilarated and thought, ‘Well when we get back home we’re going to make things better quickly.’