During the recent commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one small detail stood out that I never had heard before: Martin Luther King did not go to the Lincoln Memorial that day intending to say the words, “I have a dream.”
He had another speech prepared—a speech that he, in fact, began giving when he first rose to the podium. It was a speech that had been worked and reworked by his cadre of advisers. And by most accounts, it was not nearly as stirring as the speech he actually gave.
What happened was that midway through the scripted speech, Martin Luther King heard a voice. It wasn’t directly the voice of God, but perhaps it was the voice of God channeled through a human.
The legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had just sung that afternoon, and she was sitting on the podium listening to the young preacher give his planned speech. She knew he was missing the mark, and so she shouted out to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Mahalia Jackson knew this great orator had a better speech in him than he was giving. She knew he needed to convey to the American people the emotion, the personal angle, of why the March on Washington mattered. She knew the preacher needed to inspire more than inform in that moment.
Remarkably, King listened to what the singer said. He abandoned his notes and began extemporaneously weaving together fragments of a speech he had given in other lesser-known places, embellishing and adapting for the current moment. And from this, one of the greatest pieces of American oratory burst forth.
We know about King’s dream because he gave a stirring and historic speech. But he gave that speech because someone sitting behind him nudged him on.
Not all of us can give stirring speeches. Not all of us will rise to public prominence. Few of us will find ourselves in places of power or influence on a national scale. And yet, any one of us may encounter the opportunity to tilt the scales in the right direction, to be the first domino in a chain reaction, to shout out a word of encouragement at just the right time.
Something like that happened to me 15 years ago this fall, when a friend had the courage to call and tell me I had made a huge mistake in turning down a job offer in Dallas. Were it not for that one friend’s nudge, my family’s life and my career path no doubt would have been different. Maybe you, too, have been nudged in the right direction by someone else.
The moral to this story is that you don’t have to be the one behind the microphone or the one on the camera to change history for the better. Mahalia Jackson did it with one sentence uttered from behind the scenes. My friend made a difference with one phone call. In the right time and place, maybe you can make a difference too. Just speak the word.