Lately it seems that I am being repeatedly confronted by my own ignorance. In keeping with that spirit, I must now admit that I only this year learned that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on August 28, 1963, exactly ten years and one day before my birth.
King’s speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric, but more than that, he gave his listeners a noble vision of themselves, of what they were called to, and of what they could accomplish.
In the opening paragraphs of the speech, he powerfully reinterprets the framing documents of the United States as a promise which all subsequent U.S. citizens are honor-bound to fulfill:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. ‘I’his note was a promise that all men–yes, black men as well as white men–would be granted the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
In three sentences he produced a more compelling argument for equality than most of us could do in a four-hundred page book. He made striving for true equality a moral obligation of all Americans–not just people of color–who feel within themselves any response to the promise of our founding documents.
Moreover, by metaphorically equating that promise with a business debt, he struck at the root of the fear that equality evokes in many of its opponents:
… Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ”insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon command the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The fear that equality for all means less for the currently privileged is a false fear. Justice is a loaf of bread that grows in the giving, and freedom is a wine that can only be savored when shared with everyone. King knew that.
He also understood the terrible urgency of justice. He warned that America could not continue as it was. That nothing less than justice could ever bring peace and prosperity to us.
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. …
There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.
Sadly, some of the injustices he enumerates are all too familiar to us today: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” We have fallen short in our duty and are paying the price even as he warned us we would.
But King was speaking to an audience that already believed in equality, and he had cautions for them as well. Hatred, he warned, would only poison the prize they sought to grasp:
And that is something that I must say to my people who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not he guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
In particular he warned against giving in to the temptation to respond to violence with violence:
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
“Creative protest” is a term we need to revive and a concept we need to develop. At its heart, I would suggest, should be King’s devotion to non-violence, his unfailing opposition to hatred, and his belief in the power of “soul force.”
He was asking a great deal and he knew it. The sufferings of the civil rights protesters exceeded in scope and severity anything we’ve seen in our current situation. He knew that “some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation,” but he asked them to persevere in the knowledge that “somehow this situation can and will be changed,” in the faith that their suffering was not in vain. His faith was prodigious, and it was that faith that gave him the courage to dream what should have been impossible.
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. I have a dream today!
He was a truly great dreamer, perhaps America’s greatest, for his dream included all people. He had seen that whether we ultimately rise or fall we will do so together. He knew that “we cannot walk alone.” It is only together that we have any hope of forging a better tomorrow.
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.
It was this dream and his faith in its realization that he offered to the nation that day. That dream and that faith were the “soul power” with which he knew anything was possible.
With this faith we will be to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
As a country, we have yet to live up to King’s dream. Perhaps that’s not surprising. A dream that big can’t be realized in a single decade or even a single generation. It requires an ongoing commitment across the years, passed down from parent to child. What worries me more than our tardiness is that we may have forgotten his dream and lost the faith that sustained it. All the protests and political action in the world and an unending stream of social media and blog posts will prove fruitless if we have lost the ability to hold a dream as King did–simply and grandly–and the faith in the power of love, justice, and righteousness that makes the realization of such a dream not merely a possibility but a certainty.
Before our eyes, America is confronting the greatest division and turmoil it has known since the 1960s. Neighbor is turned against neighbor, sibling against sibling, and child against parent. We will not be able to restore harmony to our communities “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” but we will not be able to pour down justice unless we rise up to become our highest selves. We must rise above our pettiness and self-interest, lay aside hatred and payback, place our faith in the power of compassion and virtue, and remember that no matter which “they” we may be speaking of, “their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” We need a dream today, and it needs to be big.
Fifty-four years on, King’s dream can still move us forward, provided we have not lost the ability to be dreamers.
You can find the full text of King’s speech at the website of the U.S. National Archives, but nothing compares to listening to it in his own voice: