This Just In: Martin Luther King, Jr.--The Man Who Had a Dream
By William M. Cwirla
On August 28,1963, a young Baptist minister and civil rights leader addressed a crowd of over 250,000 people gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, granting freedom to the slaves and ending slavery in America. The speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his speech, known by its stirring "I Have a Dream" section, is considered one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history. Here is the video of the full speech.
Dr. King was, first and foremost, a preacher. His speech, which sounds more like a sermon than a speech, weaves texts from the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence with images and quotes from the Scriptures--Psalm 30:5, Isaiah 40:4-5; Amos 5:24; Galatians 3:28--along with hymns and patriotic songs.
Like many sermons, the 17-minute speech was written at the last minute, literally at midnight in a hotel room the day before. No advanced manuscript was available to the press or public. The famous "I have a dream" part was not even in the prepared manuscript, but appears to have been an impromptu addition as Dr. King spoke, possibly inspired by singer Mahalia Jackson who shouted from behind him, "Tell them about the dream!" referring to a speech he had made earlier in June,1963. While it is the most oft-quoted part of King's speech, there is so much more to what he said.
King begins with the occasion for the march, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which brought a "joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity." Nevertheless, all was not right. Slavery had given way to segregation and discrimination that isolated black people "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." Separate could never be equal. The promise of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" had been returned like a bounced check marked "insufficient funds." Dr. King refused to believe that the bank of American justice was bankrupt. It was finally time to cash this check of freedom and justice.
He spoke of the urgency of the moment. This was not a time to "engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He noted that there would be neither rest nor tranquility until racial justice and equality prevailed. At the same time, he warned that the push for justice should not be guilty of wrongful deed. "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. . .Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force." He warned against a reverse form of racism that would "lead us to a distrust of all white people."
Dr. King spoke of never being satisfied so long as police brutality, "for whites only" segregation, the ghettoization of blacks, and the inequity of voting rights among states prevailed. ". . .[We]will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24). As he dismissed the crowd back to their homes in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, and the slums and ghettos of the northern cities, he urged his hearers "not to wallow in the valley of despair."
Then he spoke of his dream founded upon the American dream, that one day all men would be treated equally even as they are created equal, that the descendants of former slaves and former slave owners would be able to sit down together at the "table of brotherhood," that the state of Mississippi, "sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression," would become an oasis of freedom and justice, that his four children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, that little boys and little girls, black and white, would join hands as brothers and sisters even in deeply segregated Alabama.
Dr. King's speech is prophetic, speaking to both the immediate and the future, today and the Last Day at the same time. "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" (quoting Isaiah). The speech draws to a dramatic close with the call to "Let freedom ring" from the national hymn "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and the words of an old spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Like many of the old black spirituals that were forged in the era of slavery, the words of Dr. King speak future hope into the troubled present. We might fault him for not mentioning the death and resurrection of Jesus by which the kingdom of God comes and the dream of Dr. King is finally realized. But we should remember that this is a speech in the public square, not a sermon in church. It is spoken not for repentance and faith but for temporal justice and freedom.
Has the dream of Dr. King been realized? The answer is yes and no. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation, at least on the books. America has seen a black president in Barak Obama, black supreme court justices, black senators and congressmen, most recently Rev. Raphael Warnock, the first black senator from Georgia and the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King was co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968, and a black vice-president with Kamala Harris. The hard walls of segregation and inequality have largely tumbled down. But hearts and minds are stubborn and slow to change. Old Adam is a racist, loving himself over others, loving his own against others. The summer of 2020 demonstrated vividly that we have a long and difficult road to travel before Dr. King's dream comes to its fruition.
But that is the way of prophetic speech. It is never fully realized in this life. When the prophet Amos spoke of justice or Isaiah spoke of return and restoration, it was only experience in part--not in full. The fullness of justice, righteousness, and freedom come only in Jesus Christ, only in His all-reconciling death, only by His all-atoning blood, shed for this world of hatred and division. We long for justice, righteousness, and freedom. We dream with Dr. King of an age without hatred and division. We work for it in our day within our vocations. But we recognize that true justice, righteousness, and freedom come only in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Dr. King's dream will be fully realized one day, not in the fulfillment of the "American dream," not in the renovation of society, but on the shores of the kingdom of God in the resurrection, our sweet land of liberty and our eternal home, where we will finally be free at last.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
Reflections: January 1, 2021This Just In: The Ultimate ResolutionReflections: January 2, 2021Reflections: January 3, 2021Reflections: January 4, 2021Video Short: January 5, 2021Video Short: January 4, 2021Reflections: January 5, 2021Reflections: January 6, 2021Video Short: January 6, 2021Under the Cross: Don't Look at the ListReflections: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 7, 2021Video Short: January 8, 2021Reflections: January 8, 2021Dean's List: The Catechism Really Is for YouReflections: January 9, 2021Reflections: January 10, 2021Reflections: January 11, 2021Video Short: January 11, 2021Helpful Things: Fundraising Essentials FOR YOUReflections: January 13, 2021Video Short: January 12, 2021Reflections: January 12, 2021Video Short: January 13, 2021Reflections: January 14, 2021Video Short: January 14, 2021Under the Cross: You Don't Belong to This WorldReflections: January 15, 2021Video Short: January 15, 2021Reflections: January 16, 2021Reflections: January 17, 2021Reflections: January 18, 2021Video Short: January 18, 2021This Just In: Martin Luther King, Jr.--The Man Who Had a DreamReflections: January 19, 2021Video Short: January 19, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint SebastianReflections: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 20, 2021Video Short: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 21, 2021Reflections: January 22, 2021Reflections: January 23, 2021Video Short: January 22, 2021Dean's List: Jesus Hits the Spot!Reflections: January 24, 2021Reflections: January 25, 2021Reflections: January 26, 2021Video Short: The Conversion of St. PaulHelpful Things: Effective Fundraising Through Midweek MealsVideo Short: Suffering Doesn't Mean God Doesn't Love YouReflections: January 27, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Karma, Karma, KarmaVideo Short: Abortion and the Church's WorkReflections: January 28, 2021Reflections: January 29, 2021Video Short: What Goes On In Your Pastor's Mind About Closed CommunionFoundations: You Need Your Pastor More Than EverReflections: January 30, 2021Reflections: January 31, 2021
Reflections: February 1, 2021Video Short: Stretching Out To RepentVideo Short: Parable of Those Gifted in the VineyardReflections: February 2, 2021Dead Christians You Should Know About: Saint Blaise of SebasteSpeaking of Faith: The Liturgy Is Tried and True EvangelismReflections: February 3, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday De-platformingReflections: February 4, 2021Video Short: Hearing Law and GospelVideo Short: The Anti-Catholic ParadoxDean's List: Called to ServeReflections: February 5, 2021Reflections: February 6, 2021Reflections: February 7, 2021Reflections: February 8, 2021Video Short: Ears on the Sower... And the SeedReflections: February 9, 2021Helpful Things: Sex, Sexuality, and BaptismVideo Short: The Simple Definition of Faith That Will Rescue You From Your DoubtsReflections: February 10, 2021Video Short: Woke Wednesday: Wokeism and ChristianityVideo Short: What Your Pastor Thinks When Preaching the LawReflections: February 11, 2021Reflections: February 12, 2021Video Short: Valentines and LoveUnder the Cross: Valentine's Day StinksReflections: February 13, 2021Reflections: February 14, 2021Reflections: February 15, 2021Video Short: Lent is Almost HereVideo Short: Lent For Evangelical ChristiansReflections: February 16, 2021Welcome to Lent - Supplement to the ReflectionsVideo Short: How to Fast in LentReflections: February 17, 2021Reflections: February 18, 2021Video Short: Lutherans Aren't the Cult of LutherReflections: February 19, 2021