Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 45 years ago today, established the Baptist preacher as a modern-day prophet, according to scholars contacted by EthicsDaily.com.
Delivered Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the speech is widely regarded as one of the most important addresses in American history. Scholars in 1999 voted it the best political speech of the 20th century.
“Dr. King’s 1963 words yet ring powerful and prophetic 40 years after his voice was tragically silenced in 1968,” said Wendell Griffen, a Baptist minister and former judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. “The power of the words lies in their hopeful urgency.”
Bill Tillman, T.B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, said King met at least a couple of criteria for recognition as a prophet.
“One of the criteria, not being accepted in his own land, marks the response of many Christians, and sad to say many Baptist Christians, to King,” Tillman said.
Another, “that of putting history and the future into perspective as a key to understanding the Kingdom of God,” Tillman said, was certainly reflected in King’s monumental sermon.
“King put in front of us a vision which stretched imaginations, but that we would reach the incarnation of that vision only with the discernment and energizing of the Spirit of God,” Tillman said. “He was a prophet.”
Thrust into the national spotlight after police used fire hoses and turned dogs on non-violent protestors marching for civil rights in Birmingham, Ala., King, a Baptist minister, organized a massive march on Washington.
His words to 200,000 civil-rights supporters described his dream for a future when black and whites could coexist in harmony as equals. The speech is credited with mobilizing supporters and prompting the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Time named King its Man of the Year in 1963. In 1964 he was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Use of the speech is limited by copyright, but it is available in text and video at various Web sites.
Key excerpts include:
–“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
–“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.”
–“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”
Most of the 17-minute speech, delivered in sermonic style, was improvised.
Griffen, coordinator of ministries at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Little Rock, said the words of King’s speech are “prophetic on multiple levels.”
“Far too many people who quote King had no sympathy or commitment to his cause, either in 1963 or 1968,” Griffen said. “Far too many people, including too many leaders in business, religious life, government and in neighborhoods, quote Dr. King’s 1963 words as if they were his last about racial justice.”
Griffen recommended that people who praise King for “I Have a Dream” should also read “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War.
“As the U.S. continues to misspend its future in the misguided and mismanaged military adventure in Iraq, we are once more using Dr. King as a distraction, not as a prophet,” Griffen said.
Another famous King speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” spoke of the possibility of a premature death.
Speaking at the Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., King said: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The next day, April, 4, 1968, King was killed by an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel, now site of the National Civil Rights Museum. He was 39.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.