Some words and phrases, once uttered publicly, become immortal.
I have a dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. … 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.”
In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. – crafted in 1998 from King’s own words by Stanford historian Clayborne Carson – King explains that neither the phrase “I have a dream” nor its application to racial equality were in his scripted speech for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
The previous June, he had alluded to his dream in a program at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, following a peaceful demonstration along the city’s streets.
It was a theme he had employed on other occasions, as well, but on that bright summer day at the National Mall, he suddenly decided to share his dream. Setting aside his manuscript, King extemporaneously spoke the words that will always be remembered and repeated.
On another day in a different context, it seems to me, this Baptist preacher might just as passionately and persuasively have declared his vision for religious impartiality and fairness.
Perhaps an important inspiration for how King viewed both social justice and religious pluralism was the man who championed both interracial and interreligious relations – Mahatma Gandhi.
King had certainly been introduced to Gandhi during his days at Morehouse College. Yet, it was Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, who in a sermon in 1950 at the Fellowship House of Philadelphia challenged the young Christian seminarian to study the life and teachings of the Hindu reformer who had been assassinated just two years earlier.
He became especially interested in Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (“truth force”) and his methodology of nonviolent resistance.
“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale,” King wrote in an essay published in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. “Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. … In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”
During that same spring semester at Crozer Seminary, King was given a class assignment to respond to “Six Talks Based on Beliefs that Matter,” by Union Theological Seminary historian William Adams Brown.
King’s seminar paper reflects thoughts about the larger religious world that already had been germinating in his mind, but which were certainly reinforced by his growing appreciation for the man he came to refer to, respectfully, as “the brown saint of India.”
He wrote, “Each Christian should believe that he is a member of a larger family of which God is Father. Jesus expresses the view throughout the Gospels that we are members of one family, meant to live as brothers and to express our brotherhood in helpfulness. A failure to realize this truth is a failure to realize one of the main tenets of the Christian religion. The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man [are] the starting point of the Christian ethic.”
King was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery from 1954 to 1960, from whose basement he helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
On March 22, 1959, he preached a Palm Sunday sermon that highlighted the life and work of Gandhi, whom he said, “more than anybody else in the modern world, caught the spirit of Jesus Christ and lived it more completely in his life.”
His message was centered upon two Scriptures – “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16) and “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
King suggested that the intent of the first statement was that there were people committed to following Jesus’ ways yet who were not directly connected to Christian institutions.
The second statement, he explained, showed the much broader, international influence of Gandhi compared to Jesus, who centered his ministry in Palestine with a limited group of people.
Using Gandhi as a contemporary illustration of a holy man who, like Jesus, was initially lauded but later martyred was a bold departure from the typical Palm Sunday theme.
But as King said in that message, “[I]t is one of the strange ironies of the modern world that the greatest Christian of the twentieth century was not a member of the Christian church.”
King’s conviction that God can work through the lives of people of other religions was clearly a central tenet of his Christian theological and ethical perspective.
Thus, in a statement he prepared for Redbook magazine on Nov. 5, 1964, King made explicit his appreciation for other faiths.
He wrote, “Religion at its best has always sought to promote peace and good will among men. This is true of all of the great religions of the world. In their ethical systems, we find the love ethic standing at the center.
“This is true of Judaism, this is true of Christianity, this is true of Islam, of Hinduism and Buddhism, and if we go right through all the great religions of the world we find this central message of love and this idea of the need for peace, the need for understanding and the need for good will among men.
“Now the problem has been that these noble creeds and ethical insights of the great religions have not been followed by the adherents of the particular religions, and we must face the shameful fact that all too many religious people have been religious in their creeds but not enough in their deeds.”
In 1967, King withdrew from the civil rights struggles in order to work on his final manuscript. In a rented bungalow in Jamaica, with no telephone connection to the outside world, he drafted Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Maybe he was conscious of the common humanity he shared with the black Jamaicans who surrounded him. Or, despite his separation from the struggles of Alabama, perchance he was nonetheless aware how all people desire to be free and to experience community.
No matter the circumstances that prompted his ruminating, King began his concluding chapter with the following metaphor:
“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of mankind.
“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separate in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Martin Luther King Jr. will always be remembered for his dream about racial equality. But I propose that it is reasonable to assume that he had another dream.
Given the occasion, possibly he might also have said, “I have a dream that one day the sons of Jewish rabbis and the sons of Muslim imams will sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that right here in the Bible Belt little Christian boys and girls will be able to join hands with little Hindu and Buddhist boys and girls as sisters and brothers.”
King’s dream about racial equality in America has not yet been realized. Neither has a dream about interreligious understanding and cooperation. I am committed to work for the fulfillment of these aspirations.
For the rest of my life, I am guided by these four words.
I have a dream.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 (Jan. 18). The previous articles in the series are:
King, Heschel: Fast Friends and Activists | Jack Moline
Another King Holiday: We’re Still Not Listening | Starlette Thomas
Professor emeritus of theology and missions from Logsdon Seminary and former chair of trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He and his wife Janie were missionary teachers in Indonesia for almost a quarter century.