"After 10 minutes, he was more than halfway through a recitation that had been well received but was, as King biographer Taylor Branch would write, 'far from historic' and in places 'clubfooted.'
"Then, King looked up. He put aside his text, for he had seen -- or just as likely sensed -- an opportunity.- Advertisement -
"This in itself was not unusual; King rarely spoke from a text, preferring to assemble speeches and sermons from an array of what Hansen called his 'set pieces' -- bits of oratory based on Bible stories or verses, songs, old sermons and other sources.
"Now, King began skipping whole paragraphs from his prepared text. Some on the platform noticed, including Clarence Jones, a King adviser who had worked on the speech. 'He's off. He's on his own now. He's inspired,' Jones told Hansen in 2002, four decades later.
"Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier and was one of King's favorite gospel singers, cried, 'Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!'
"Although it's not clear whether King heard her, he did.- Advertisement -
"'I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'
"Having raised his eyes, he now had to raise his voice to be heard over the growing applause. He continued to profess his dream, repeating the refrain seven more times, moving from justice and equality to something deeper -- a human bond transcending race.
"'I have a dream that some day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.'
"It was as if only once he was up there, gazing out, could King see a future many that day could not: ...' in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!'
"To his wife, Coretta, it seemed King had forgotten time itself, that his words flowed 'from some higher place.'
"He ended suddenly, returning to the speech that had been lying unread on the lectern for the last line: 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty -- we are free at last!'
"For a moment the audience was stunned. Silence. Then, a rocking ovation.- Advertisement -
"Ralph Abernathy, King's deputy and a fellow preacher, told him, 'Leader, you swept today.'
"At the White House, President Kennedy -- who with King would produce much of 20th-century America's memorable oratory -- turned to an aide: 'He's damn good.'
"Kennedy and his aides had honed his inaugural address for weeks, and he had read its stirring words as written; at Gettysburg, Lincoln gave the speech he had written. But King created a masterpiece on the fly, 'like some sort of jazz musician,' said David J. Garrow, whose King biography, Bearing the Cross, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. 'It's the spontaneous parts of the speech that people remember.'"
What has happened in the years since these powerful words were spoken can be debated forever. Whether the dream lives on, was fulfilled, or turned into a nightmare (as Dr. King often asserted before his assassination) does not diminish the message that resonated with people all over the world.