The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms was one of the pivotal moments in the fight for civil rights. Martin Luther King’s (MLK) “I Have a Dream” speech was the galvanizing moment of the march which drew between 200,000-300,000 people.
In preparing for the speech, MLK originally called the speech Normalcy, Never Again. King wanted his speech to be a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He and other speakers agreed to make their speeches calm and inspirational rather than rousing. They were worried about the consequences of a speech which would provoke disruptive behavior.
MLK’s speech was scripted and delivered well, but toward the end of the speech, the famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” King had often used a dream motif in his speeches but had not included it in this speech.
Without hesitation, he went off script and began the part of the speech that will be forever remembered. That part of the speech was less than ten percent of the total address, but the imagery defined the quest for racial equality.
When you read the transcript, you would have no idea that the “I Have a Dream” segment was completely spontaneous. When you listen to the speech, you are struck by how natural the segment was in the context of the overall speech.
Spontaneity is a human trait born out of a moment of realization that a new way is needed. It’s a breaking away from convention. It requires confidence and risk taking, but more than anything a creative open mind.
In a day of teleprompters and scripted text, few leaders give themselves an opportunity to be spontaneous. And we suffer as a society when we don’t get to see the true person who we selected to lead us.
How does spontaneity relate to intelligence? First, it requires a real time assessment of our environment and our reactions to it. That requires self-reflection, unscripted responsiveness, and thinking at that moment how our actions will be received now and in the future.
We suffer in other ways from a lack of spontaneity. Imagine our greatest inventors having to follow a research plan spelling out what they plan to do. Imagine Lennon and McCartney producing a song according to a tested formula. Why have become discouraging of those who are spontaneous in the way they live their lives? We should be thankful that they believe in themselves.
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“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” – e.e. cummings (Poet)