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Origins of King’s Dream found in 1944 high school speech

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell frequently cites a theory known as the “10,000-Hour Rule,” which he says refers to the amount of practice time it takes to succeed at a specific task. For instance, the Beatles performed over 1,200 times in the four years preceding their international invasion.

Another example of this theory at work may be found in the recent discovery that Martin Luther King Jr. developed and spoke publicly on themes of his iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech almost twenty years earlier, at the age of fifteen. As John Llewellyn, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University and co-author of the paper that revealed this information, explained in an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Despite extensive scholarly study of King’s life and writings, Wake Forest University student William Murphy recently became the first to identify the striking parallels between King’s legendary 1963 “Dream” speech and an address he delivered in 1944 as a high school student in Georgia. Even as an adolescent, King knew what was right. In “The Negro and the Constitution,” his speech that won the Georgia Black Elks oratorical contest, he revealed the principles that ultimately inspired the most significant and moving American speech of the 20th century.

These two speeches share a powerful and prophetic bond. Though “I Have a Dream” is a more polished text, the timeless ideals, themes and images celebrated in 1963 — including brotherly love, nonviolence and freedom from racial hatred — were first presented in Dublin, Ga., in 1944. He defined the bedrock of the civil rights struggle: Success of the movement required that the enemy be hatred, not Southerners. In 1944, he described scenes of black and white children playing together in harmony, anticipating his 1963 refrain. He also planted the seed for his famous “bad check” metaphor, contrasting the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation with the oppressive reality of race relations.

The study expounds on these similarities, as well as the less obvious binding narrative thread: the story of Marian Anderson, the great African American opera singer who, in 1939, was barred from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black. Her story and songs punctuate both speeches beyond mere words.

While King was surely not the speaker at age 15 he would become twenty years later, a period during which he undoubtedly logged thousands of hours of practice, it’s nevertheless remarkable that his ideas were so fully formed as a teenager. In King’s case, preciousness certainly played as much a role in his early success as his dogged determination.

As the study itself concludes:

While King the speaker continued to develop and refine his craft throughout his life, it is clear that “The Negro and the Constitution” and the “I Have a Dream” are cut from the same philosophical and rhetorical cloth. At the age of fifteen, Martin Luther King, Jr. had already developed the central ideas, metaphors, and arguments he would use to write the greatest American speech of the twentieth century.