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MLK First Heard The Phrase ‘I Have A Dream’ From This Remarkable Woman You Probably Don’t Know

Prathia Hall at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL, 1964. Courtesy Danny Lyon, Fair use image

 

In September 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Terrell County, Georgia to speak at Mt. Olive Baptist Church. The church had just been burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. At a vigil held at where the church once stood, a young college student, who was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the daughter of a Baptist minister, was invited to pray.

Known for her oratory skills, Hall delivered a prayer that included the lines “Lord, we’re going to be free. We want to be free so our children won’t have to grow up with their heads bowed.” While leading the group of about 50 African Americans in prayer, Hall also repeated the phrase “I Have A Dream,” and concluded by calling for racial justice. King was moved with Hall’s prayer, particularly, her use of the phrase, “I Have A Dream”.

Hall’s “I Have A Dream” phrase would inspire King to start using it in his sermons leading to his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington. But not without seeking permission. As Hall’s biographer Courtney Pace notes in Freedom Faith: “After the service, King sought and received Hall’s permission to use the phrase ‘I have a dream’ in his own preaching. Hall was a fairly private person in general and certainly not an attention seeker. She did not boast about her connection to King, though, later in life, when friends asked about her role in “I have a dream,” she confirmed that King adapted the phrase from her use. She was quick to say King made the speech his own and did not plagiarize her.”

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Hall was just 22 and had only recently graduated from Temple University with a degree in political science when she led that prayer vigil. Born on June 29, 1940, to Reverend Berkeley L. Hall and Ruby Hall, her father, a Baptist preacher, founded the Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1938.

At five years old, Hall had her first experience with racial segregation when she and her family were forced to be reseated in a segregated car. She would go on to attend the Philadelphia High School for Girls in Philadelphia before enrolling in Temple University where she began to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. In November 1961, Hall was among a group of demonstrators arrested for sitting in at a Barnes Drive-In Restaurant in Annapolis that barred Black customers. She was held without bail in jail for two weeks.

In 1962, Hall joined the SNCC, becoming the first woman field organizer for SNCC in Southwest Georgia which included Terrell County. Her public speaking had then already begun. Three days before Mt. Olive Baptist Church was burned down, White segregationists’ nightriders fired into the house where Hall was staying. She and two other civil rights activists were wounded in the attack. But that didn’t stop her from being present at the prayer vigil, where her prayer impressed King.

Hall would remain with SNCC until 1966 when she moved to Roosevelt, New York with her husband, Ralph Wynn. Having joined the ministry, Hall served as pastor at Mt. Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia which her father founded. She earned a Master of Divinity in 1982, a Master of Theology in 1984, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997. She joined the faculty at Boston University School of Theology in 2000 where she held the Martin Luther King Chair in Social Ethics.

The theologian, ethicist, and civil rights activist died of cancer on August 12, 2002, in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 62. Five years before her death, Ebony magazine named Hall number one on their list of Top 15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.

Today, some historians doubt her contribution to the “I Have A Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches in American history. But as Pace says in her biography: “Whether she was his only source or merely the spark that culminated years of influence, it was only after personally witnessing Hall’s dream in Southwest Georgia that King started using the phrase in his preaching.”

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Written by PH

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