How the weather factored into Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech

Monica Danielle
·5 min read

"I have 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.'

I have a dream that one 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.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo, File)

The weather has been the backdrop to every momentous occurrence in history. Sometimes it plays a major role that influences the outcome of seismic events as it did on D-Day during World War II, and other times it simply provides the scenery in which circumstances unfold.

In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and addressed a crowd of an estimated 250,000 people and made what is, perhaps, the most definitive statement of his storied lifetime: "I have a dream."

Few speeches in the annals of American history have the power to stir up intense emotions like this speech during a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights Movement. You would be hard-pressed to find an American unaware of the historical speech, one of the best known in U.S. history, right up there with Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address, according to History.com. What a lot of people may not know is that the event took place on a hot, summer day in August.

"It's August 28, 1963. Hundreds of people are soaking their feet in the Reflecting Pool in an attempt to cool off. It's a normal mid-summer day but the body heat of 250,000+ people is causing an abnormal spike in D.C. The cool marble of the Lincoln Memorial mocks attendees who have spent months marching to its steps. It's a pivotal place and an important time for America," writer Sara Marsolek notes as she recounts the mood of the day. King was the last speaker of the day. "The crowd now directs its attention to the man whose words have cut through the heat of the noonday sun."

While July is typically the hottest month in Washington, D.C., with an average high of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, August is a close second with an average high of 88 degrees.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo, File)

In a 2013 report for the Library of Congress, Jennifer Harbster offered this breakdown of what the weather was like for demonstrators traveling to D.C. from across the country. As for the weather in the city itself, Harbster said, "It was a beautiful day for a march. It was not a typical hot and humid summer day -- the temperature was mild and dew point was low. It averaged 73 degrees with the hottest part of the day being from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. when it reached 80 degrees."

While it was a pleasant summer day, The Washington Post notes that media that day "described the day as one with high temperatures and stifling humidity, with hundreds cooling off by soaking their feet in the reflecting pool and at least one person being carried away due to heat exhaustion."

Harbster offers the following logical explanation:

"When we look at the photographs and read accounts of the event, we might get a different picture of the weather for the day- that of a day that was hot and humid. Folks dipped their feet into the reflecting pool and fanned themselves to keep cool. After being on the Mall for the Let Freedom Ring event held on August 28 of this year (2013), I can attest it probably felt hotter than it was because of the overwhelming crowds of people and standing on your feet for hours on end. Also, one's choice of clothing would affect how you reacted to the weather. If you were in a suit or otherwise dressed up, as many were in 1963, you might have heated up quicker than if you were dressed in cotton shorts and t-shirt."

In his book, Like a Mighty Stream, author and editor Patrik Henry Bass agrees and summed it up by saying, "Some recall the day as one of the hottest of their lives; others thought it was a mild summer day."

Perspective is everything, and your experience of the day likely depended on what you were wearing, where you were standing and your level of excitement. As Harbster notes, "Although the weather observations tell a different story, to fully understand what the weather felt like, we need to think beyond the records and take note of these other factors (i.e., crowds, activity, and wardrobe). I have no doubt that it seemed hotter on the Mall during the 1963 March than the records tell us."

Nearing the end of his speech, King departed from his prepared notes and launched into the most famous part of his 16-minute speech that day: "And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."

According to History.com, "King had used the "I have a dream" theme before, in a handful of stump speeches, but never with the force and effectiveness of that hot August day in Washington."

"When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

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