Let's get one thing out of the way, here: the most famous lines of the "I Have A Dream" speech were improvised. In fact, the last section was just MLK speaking direct from the heart. But, because this is MLK we're talking about (dude had a heart that's about as eloquent as Shakespeare) he just opened his mouth and words like the following came out:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. (15)
So the most famous speechwriter of "I Have A Dream" is MLK himself. (Source)
But the guy had help. The night before the speech, he was up late deliberating on what material he was going to use. He had drafts, notes, outlines, and ideas, but he hadn't decided exactly what he was going to say. That's right: one of the greatest leaders ever was a crammer.
And this earth-shaking, game-changing speech couldn't have happened the way it did without a body of pre-existing material backing up the improv. The background was the tree trunk, and the improv was the branches.
During the speech, of course, MLK really went out on a limb. But before the speech, he gathered writers and advisors to have one of the most important study sessions of the 20th Century.
Levison was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s main speechwriter in the early '60s. Before 1963, Levison had helped King draft speeches that used the theme of a "dream." These were the mix tapes for the album; by the time of the night before King was prepared to talk about the American Dream.
Levison also helped prepare the first draft of the speech MLK was supposed to give on August 28, 1963. Then everything turned into a jumbled mess in the writers' room, with different advisors disagreeing about whether MLK should speak more like a preacher or an activist. (Source)
Unfortunately for King, speechwriting was only half of Levison's contribution. He also contributed to some unwanted FBI attention.
Before he got on the civil rights train, the federal heat had tagged Levison as a Communist sympathizer. There were rumors that he had given money to the American Communist party, and the Kennedy administration pressured MLK to cut him off. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the FBI to monitor both men by bugging their phones, homes, offices, and hotel rooms. (Whoa, creepy.) (Source)
Levison was such a liability that by 1963, Clarence Jones had to act as a go-between for MLK and Levison, even though they were close friends. Levison couldn't even be in the writers' room the night before the big event. The conference was held in a hotel lobby, because King thought it would be harder to bug. (Source)
The moral of the story is to run background checks on potential friends…unless you're prepared to go the distance with them, MLK-style.
Jones' biggest contribution to "I Have a Dream" was coming up with the metaphor of a bad check…which is pretty much any other speech would be a serious highlight. Unfortunately for Jones, the "I Have a Dream" is full of so many stunning and moving metaphors that the "bad check" bit comes off as a bit underwhelming.
But that's just what happens when you're writing for as great an orator as MLK.
In "I Have a Dream," MLK says that "America has given the N**** people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds" (4.5). In other words, America broke its promises. Instead of liberty, African Americans got slavery. This was literally the worst bounced check in the history of humanity.
When he was writing a draft for MLK's big speech, Jones thought back on his experiences organizing protests in Birmingham. During a protest called "The Children's March," (the participants were, you guessed it, mostly children) police harassed the marchers with attack dogs and fire hoses. They finally arrested hundreds of kids. (Source)
We're going to go ahead and repeat that, in case you thought that life in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Era was in anyway okay: the police harassed children with attack dogs and fire hoses. They arrested kids.
It was one of the most infamous moments of the Civil Rights campaign. With so many people in jail, Jones had to raise money for bail. He flew to New York to sign a promissory note, a promise to pay a bank back for a borrowed amount of money.
In the "I Have a Dream" writers' room, Jones was scrambling to put together some semblance of a text from the scattered notes he'd taken. It was then that he thought back on Birmingham.
Boom. Metaphor = crafted.
Evidently Jones was one of those writers who works well with a deadline—a deadline of twelve hours before the March on Washington.