In 1963, people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to envision and catalyze change. Sixty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream remains unmatched in its prophetic demand.
Named the greatest speech of the 20th century in 1999, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is better described as a sermon and is more than memorable. It’s militant and regimented by the biblical text. It’s prophetic but without the tailored suits, snake oil and the one-size-fits-all capitalist Christian dream of fame, wealth, and material success.
Many of today’s preachers sound the same. They are either toeing the line of their favorite political party or denominational body or tiptoeing around issues that would offend the largest givers or the long-standing member whose hands are in everything. Religious puppets with strings pulled tight, their smile is wide and bright on Sunday morning, saying only what will ensure that they have a job next week.
But King’s sermon marches on and right past those who name and claim to be followers of Jesus. Not surprisingly, their messages manage not to step on anyone’s toes.
Closer to the Bible’s intent to create distance between God’s people and the empire and its “ruling relationships,” King’s sermon stands in stark contrast to today’s American preachers who are so close to politicians that I can’t tell the difference between them. These preachers have nothing bad to say about America—not a single “woe to you!”— despite the witness of the prophets.
Instead, they empower their members to say “woe is me” when they are asked to “share all things in common” as the early church did (Acts 2:44-47). Because America’s dream is independent and individual success secured one bootstrap at a time. The world is not ours but all mines.
Still, we will print King’s speech in church bulletins and give children coloring sheets with no intention of filling in what is missing for all God’s children to have “a seat at the table of brotherhood.” Some European Americans cannot even admit they are the children of former slave owners and segregationists, though most African Americans are the descendants of those formerly enslaved and their families were victimized by America’s separate but equal ways.
We cannot find common ground and ensure equal footing when we lie about how we got here. “Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims,” civil rights leader el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, formerly known as Malcolm X, says in a 1964 speech. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”
America has not been a stepping stone for African Americans who dodged rocks during the civil rights movement and today attempt to dodge bullets fired while running away from police officers. Where are we really going if African Americans are ending up in the same place, still protesting unfair treatment and still the victims of state-sanctioned violence?
King’s dream demands a response—not a reenactment. He didn’t ask that we simply memorize it but move on it. He didn’t ask for a towering monument but for America to pay her dues to African Americans whose ancestors were brought to this country involuntarily.
“But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King said to the crowd of 200,000 in 1963. “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”
Now millions of Americans have heard it. But can you hear it not only as revolutionary speech but a call for reparatory justice or, in other words, reparations?
It’s the difference between seeing King as a dreamer or a prophet. One allows us to turn over and get more comfortable as we listen to him. The other demands a response.