Fifty years ago, American civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts explores the social conditions that inspired the speech, and what lessons the Church can learn from it.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The fact that the speech was unplanned, a kind of spur-of-the-moment thing -possibly prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s cry: “Tell them about the dream, Martin” – makes the speech even more extraordinary. It is generally recognised that Dr King had delivered a similar rendition to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). But it cannot be denied that the words delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August, 1963, came from unexpected places, yet expected places.
At the time of the speech, America’s social context was grim. North and South America were marred by division of the worst kind – legalised segregation, endorsed by the law of the land. Concessions from those who held power seemed improbable. And most Blacks were firmly bolted in poverty not of their own making. Any sense of ‘overcoming’ such herculean obstacles seemed a million miles away. But, for Dr King, founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organised civil rights activities throughout the United States, ‘overcome’ had to be an option. It was overcome, or the death of the Black race. The choices were that stark.
In August 1963, Dr King led the Great March on Washington, and delivered this memorable speech in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. In that setting, laden with historical significance, the cry for freedom continued in earnest. The quest for justice moved up a gear: to overcome the horrors of racism was King’s fundamental message. He said, “In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. 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. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of justice.”
Justice was at the very heart of this speech – racial justice in particular. To the thousands that stood and listened, including Mahalia Jackson, and the million or so who heard it broadcast on their television sets, the message was unambiguous: “Let our people go.” If you ask the average person what they remember most about Martin Luther King, I imagine the vast majority will make reference to his fabulous, ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Not surprising, after all, more than anything else it was this speech that contributed to his iconic and statesman-like stature. But let us not forget that this was not the only speech of his to receive international public acclaim.
At the Riverside Church in New York City, King delivered an anti-Vietnam War speech – ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’. Some regarded this speech as an unmitigated disaster, while others, such as King’s partner and strategist in the Civil Rights Movement, James Bevel, described it as King’s most important speech. If anything, the speech was certainly risky, because in standing by Vietnamese poor peasants, he was widening his justice convictions. This only served to increase his critics, Black and White, for apparently taking his eye off the racial justice ball. But, by this stage in his ministry, King’s confidence had increased, his convictions broadened. Increasingly indifferent to his many critics, he began challenging America’s three major injustices: the mistreatment of Black people, women and the poor. All of his speeches, from ‘Beyond Vietnam’ to ‘I have a Dream’, were punctuated by a single thread – that of justice.
Recently, a colleague asked me a pretty provocative question: “If I had to have my life again, what would I come back as?” As I blurted out the profession, the words of James Cone, who in many ways developed aspects of King’s theology, came rushing to mind: “Racial injustice is not the only injustice in our world – there are many others. Some less important, some more important, but justice is who God is.” Confirming that if I had to have my life again, the profession I would choose, if given a choice, would involve addressing other forms of injustice – not just racial injustice. This is not only where King was but, more importantly, where Jesus was; the colonised Jew did not hesitate to attack all forms of injustice.
Returning to the ‘I have a Dream’ speech, few people can challenge its rhetorical brilliance. The content is also unparalleled. But if the Dream speech is to move towards reality, our local churches need to consider ways of concretising its core values. For King, the local church and the State were the key places of implementation and action. The importance and power of the local church reinforced King’s understanding of church. The responsibility of every local church, even without support from the State, and the need ‘to care for the least of these,’ were central to King’s theology and ecclesiology.
The most recent events in Woolwich confirm that King’s Dream for integration is still far off, but they also confirm that local churches still have a long way to go in terms of addressing the root causes of societal injustice.
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Co-ordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain