It truly was the dream speech.
Fifty years ago today — on August 28, 1963 — Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of the most important addresses in U.S. history.
A quarter of a million civil-rights supporters crowded into Washington D.C. to have their voices heard, and King’s voice was the spark plug. It became a defining moment for the movement.
A Rhetorical Masterpiece
As his electric speech came to a climax, he departed from his prepared remarks to celebrate his dream.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends — so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. . . .
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.
The speech was just over 15 minutes — and is a rhetorical masterpiece. King makes references to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and most importantly, the Bible. Here’s his allusion to Isaiah 40:4:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and 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.
King’s Call to the Church
King had been swept into the movement in 1955 in the wake of Rosa Parks’s refusal to surrender her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery. King was the 26-year-old pastor of the city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and quickly became the most recognizable leader of the movement, until thirteen years later when he was assassinated.
But King not only delivered the most significant American speech of the twentieth century; he also was one of the most eloquent writers. Biographer Stephen Oates says King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is “the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written” (Let the Trumpet Sound, 222).
He wrote the letter earlier in 1963 in response to local clergy urging him to wait on civil rights. He had been jailed for a nonviolent protest on Good Friday, April 11. The letter, says John Piper, “delivered a powerful call to the church, which rings as true today as it did in 1963” (Bloodlines, 27). King wrote,
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . .
But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.
How the Dream Ends
Four months later, King was finishing his dream speech with echoes from what should be the dream of every Christian.
Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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!”
Great strides have been made in the United States in fifty years. We dishonor King to overlook the many triumphs and paces forward. The Millennials were born into a different society than the Boomers. Thankfully, those of us born in the South in the 1980s aren’t able to say with Piper, “Segregation was the world we grew up in — legally mandated separation of races at all kinds of levels. Separate schools, separate motels, separate restrooms, separate swimming pools, separate drinking fountains” (Piper, Bloodlines, 25).
Let’s not discount the many wonderful strides forward. But there are so many steps left to go. Again Piper: “Many things have changed in the last [fifty] years, but in some people some deep things haven’t changed. There is still plenty of hate” (27–28).
As a professing Christian, King knew that some decisive victories inevitably await “that day.” We will not utterly and finally be free until we are free at last in the new creation, in the presence of the true liberator. But we labor to speed up that day, and bring as many foretastes of it as we can into ours.