History can change in an instant. A wrong turn, an off-the-cuff statement, or a single shot can forever alter the course of the world and the people in it. Sometimes, history can be changed completely by accident, with observers and participants having no idea what a monumental moment they just witnessed. More commonly, however, the world changes on purpose, through intentional, measured decisions that change the course of history. Sometimes, these choices are made by world leaders or others who have been selected by their peers to make such decisions. Other times, it’s average people deciding what they think is best for the rest of the population.
In an ideal situation, these monumental decisions are made with plenty of time to consider the pros and cons. However, that’s not always possible. Sometimes, choices have to be made quickly, and everyone has to live with the consequences. These split-second decisions that changed the world are both fascinating and humbling, a reminder to everyone of the potential weight of their words and actions.
If there’s one Martin Luther King Jr. quote that everyone knows, it’s “I have a dream.” This line came as part of a powerful and inspiring speech on civil rights delivered by the reverend August 28, 1963 in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In it, King espoused his vision of a future that included racial harmony, framed around the idea of a “dream” he had. However, originally, there wasn’t meant to be any mention of dreaming.
King had an entire speech written and prepared, but when Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer in the audience, shouted “tell ‘em about the dream,” King started to improvise. He began speaking from the heart, not his prepared notes, and the result was perhaps the greatest example of public speaking in American history.
Teddy Roosevelt, easily America’s most action movie-esque president, loved to make grand speeches. In 1912, while making another run at the presidency as the leader of a new political party, the Progressives, Roosevelt had prepared a 50-page diatribe that he aimed to deliver to a waiting audience. Before heading there, Roosevelt randomly decided to fold up the speech and place it in his breast pocket, a small decision that soon saved his life.
When standing to address the crowd, an assailant shot Roosevelt in the chest, but the bullet was greatly slowed by the massive hunk of paper in his pocket. Of course, being the bull moose that he was, Teddy still got up on that stage and delivered a rousing speech, even with a piece of lead lodged inside his body.
One of the most infamous moments in music history is February 3, 1959, otherwise known as “The Day the Music Died.” That day, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP Richardson, Jr. (also known as the Big Bopper), all famous musicians, perished when their small plane crashed in Iowa. As it turns out, they were only on that plane due to a rash, and seemingly inconsequential, decision by Holly.
They had all been on the road for a while and were beginning to run out of clean clothes. They were scheduled to take a bus to their next show in Minnesota, but Holly really wanted some clean clothes and convinced the others to charter a plane with him so they could arrive early and do everyone’s laundry. This desire for fresh skivvies proved to be fatal.
The sinking of the Titanic is one of the greatest naval tragedies in history. The ship, famously described as “unsinkable,” hit an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank shortly thereafter. There is plenty of blame to be passed around for the massive loss of life on that night, but one portion belongs to a last-minute decision to switch officers.
Second Officer David Blair was removed from the crew just before the ship set sail, and he forgot to hand in his key to a locker that contained binoculars for the lookout. The ship had set off before he realized, and so the crew had to watch for icebergs using only their eyes. Obviously, this proved woefully inadequate.