Updated: Mar 24, 2020
On August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the foremost black leader in American history and the most notable American of the 20th century, gave his magnum opus on America’s grandest stage. In front of a crowd of more than 250,000, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and spoke the words that would later be coined as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
The written speech that sat on the podium in front of King was meant to address the goal of the gathering, economic fairness and social justice. However, a little more than 11 minutes into the oratory, King, at the behest of gospel music legend Mahalia Jackson, veered off into his vision of what America could become.
He expressed a utopian view of a nation where race and other components of a person’s background would not be used to prejudge or deny that person and that a person would be able stand, or indeed fall, based upon his or her own character.
In that speech Dr. King said that his dream for American society was deeply rooted in America’s dream for itself. By that he meant the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As a result of its paradisiacal imagery, the “Dream” portion of the speech is routinely invoked to celebrate a dream “realized,” ignoring the horrors of American society that King most often talked about, and that he spoke of in the first 11 minutes of the speech. But in telling his dream, Dr. King was expressing that it was his mission to challenge oppression and persecution, particularly that which was experienced by African Americans, because he was deeply rooted in the belief that persecution and oppression violate God’s creation and obscure God’s glory.
Much like his speech, Dr. King’s life is often taken out of context. While he is perhaps America’s most celebrated figure today, during his life he was the subject of great derision. Even at the height of his popularity, around the time of this speech, he was intensely hated by a vast portion of White America, including an exceedingly high number of individuals in state and national government. And he was met with distrust among some in the Black community because of his nonviolent tactics, which lacked the appeal of the aggression that was seen in the Nation of Islam and in the later Black Power Movement.
These negative feelings were only exacerbated in his latter years due to King’s evolving views on the depths of America’s great sin. He came to understand that America needed a complete moral overhaul and he began to speak out against the evils of American greed, and most specifically against the Vietnam War.
His stance against the war brought him into conflict with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a formerly bombastic racist turned King supporter who had pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at King’s behest.
King thus became even more unpopular with whites and the disassociation with Johnson made things difficult for black leaders who were looking to cultivate relationships with power brokers in government. Also, by this time, young African American activists had grown disillusioned with the then miniscule gains from King’s passivist approach.
By the time of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, his favorability among Americans had plummeted, yielding an estimated 75% disapproval rate based on polls conducted at the time. Though he died at 39, Dr. King lived long enough to see his own star dim in the eyes of his nation and his people.
Even still, he was not deterred from his mission. He was not swayed by the ridicule because he was deeply rooted in what he knew to be God’s desire for mankind.
And because of his unaltered focus, many gains have been made toward the accomplishment of his God-given dream. Doors have been opened— most times just a crack but opened nonetheless—for people of color and women to achieve superlative heights in business, education, the armed forces, and politics. Laws have been created over the last half century with the goal, or at least the expressed goal, of leveling the playing field and eliminating discrimination. Cultural movements have developed to properly characterize America’s past as a land of bondage, in an attempt to push it to becoming the land of the free.
Yet now, in 2020, we find ourselves in a time when even the most incredulous of observers can acknowledge that open racism in America is reaching heights not seen in decades. Movements are taking place with the goal of spreading white supremacy throughout America and Europe. Antisemitism, Xenophobia, and disenfranchisement are once again daily components of our national discourse. And those who hold these views are as apt as ever to carry them out, whether in the form of laws, or in the form of gun violence.
And so finding ourselves at this point, there is a question for those of us who seek to benefit from Dr. King’s dream: What are we rooted in?
What are we rooted in? And that “we” means we as in individuals, we as family members, we as community members, we as members of a particular race or culture, we as Americans, and we as Christians.
What are we rooted in?
Let me posit that, regardless of what we have been rooted in, if we want to reach and reclaim the glory that Dr. King and our forebearers pursued, we must now be rooted in the things of God. We must be rooted in the will of God; we must be rooted in the work of God; we must be rooted in the ways of God. Because, after all, it is the glory of God that we ultimately desire to obtain.
The Apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 13:13 that when the time for preaching and teaching have come to an end and the glory of God is revealed, the three things that will remain are hope, faith, and love.
If these three shall abide when the glory comes, then let us be rooted in them now.
Let us be rooted in hope.
We know hope is the desire for greater; it’s the longing for that which is yet a great distance away. But it’s not just the desire. It’s the pursuit. Hope is the pursuit of that which is so far in the distance that we can barely see it—that which is so far away that we can’t even be sure it’s there.
We hope that the world God created, the world Dr. King dreamed of, is possible, even if just in our little slice of society. And so we must pursue it. Regardless of how far in the distance and how difficult the path we must pursue the world we desire. We must be rooted in hope.
Let us be rooted in faith.
Faith is simply belief, but in terms of the greater glory we wish to reach, faith is the belief that it is there to be reached in the first place. As Dr. King once said, faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Sadly, many people have lost hope and stopped pursuing progress because they came to not believe that there was any progress to be gained. But faith fuels our pursuit and sustains us on the path until we reach the destination. So, lets stay rooted in the faith that God’s glory is there to be reached.
And lastly, let us be rooted in love.
Love can be difficult to properly understand because its most associated with a feeling. But the love that we need to be rooted in is an action. And that action is sacrifice. We need to be rooted in the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice what seems to be in our own best interest for that which benefits the whole.
Think for a moment of how greatly Dr. King could of have served himself during his life? With a level of intelligence that made him a college student at age 16, oratory skills that won him international acclaim, and persuasiveness that steered the minds of heads of state, King could have enriched himself beyond belief even in a time of discrimination (other “leaders” have proven it was possible). But King sacrificed what seemed to be best for himself for what he knew was best for the whole. And he did so, knowing that he would not experience the glory that was to come, as he told a crowd in Memphis Tennessee in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was assassinated.
If we are rooted in this kind of love, we will be able to pursue God’s desire for our society with greater intensity and vigor, not being held back by our own personal fears or self-interests. The willingness to sacrifice will allow us to aggressively chase after the glory that awaits and achieve that glory for those who are yet alive, as opposed to leaving future generations in the same struggle. So, let us be rooted in that love.
The life of Dr. King, and indeed his greatest rhetorical feat, remind us even today that there is a greater glory that awaits. And by the Word of God we understand that glory is achieved by the combined work of hope, faith, and love. So, let us be rooted in those three as we seek to do God’s work. Let us be rooted as our hero was rooted, sharing in his God-given 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.”