For Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Over fifty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, one of the most momentous speeches of the 20th Century. Why did this speech have the power to impact history? No other speech given that day or since has lived longer or had more influence on the minds and hearts of the entire world. Three factors make this stunning speech alive and relevant from the day it was first heard to today.
The first was Dr. King himself. If we compare his words to the other words spoken that day, we find something extraordinary. Nowhere in his speech is there bitterness, hatred, intolerance, or extremism. Instead, we find wisdom, love, vision, and truth.
How could this man who experienced the police dogs of the old South, the jail cell of Birmingham, the brutality of racism, the unspeakable crimes to which he was witness, rise to such enlightenment? He learned his lessons from Gandhi and Christ, and so, he could actually love his enemies, even while abhorring what they did. And because of this, he could bring friend and foe into a higher plane of reflection, where the noise of the then-present rage on both sides quieted down. This reflection was so quiet that one had to see the truth that existed exactly as it was; one had to measure his or her deepest values against that reality; one had to answer to what was highest in the human cause.
There are many very good biographies on Dr. King’s life. One of my favorites is Let The Trumpet Sound by Stephen B. Oates. When we study Dr. King’s life, we find that he wasn’t born with the transcendental wisdom that was one of his hallmarks. His personal journey was to rise from his own prejudice and reaction against bigotry to a deeper understanding of the human condition that allows such transgressions to exist. He learned about prejudice from his own prejudice. He learned about transcendence from his own experience of transcendence. He not only spoke about freedom and justice, he embodied it. Through his own self-mastery over his circumstances, he became uniquely qualified to lead, not only a movement, but the world.
The second factor was the speech’s content. Freedom is its own cause. Today, freedom is as much a world issue as it was in 1963. In some ways, ironically, more so.
Freedom is a hard notion to grasp and a harder reality to achieve. The human heart and soul long for freedom – freedom of thought and individuality, freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit. As an aspiration, freedom is opposed by many forms of tyranny: sometimes of the state, sometimes one’s society, sometimes one’s family, sometimes one’s own inner chains. In the world today, the battle between extreme worldviews that would demand of people their strict devotion to dogma is the first major challenge and battleground of the new century. This is yet another version of the historical struggle in which doctrines of conformity are in mortal conflict with a profound desire for freedom.
When King talked about freedom, he wasn’t speaking in the abstract. He had reached a level of personal freedom in which even the prospect of his own death was not a deterrent to what he saw as right action for the higher cause of freedom and justice. King embodied a type of freedom that, as Robert Frost described in his poem It’s Hard Not to Be King When It’s In You And In The Situation, is “the type of freedom that is not granted by kings.”
The third factor that made King’s speech more than just a speech was the form. He began by describing the original governing principle of the United States: freedom. This was the promise that we had made to each other. This was the seed from which the great nation had been brought into being. Then he described the current condition that existed: injustice, racism, brutality, and oppression. He then described his dream, his vision for America and for the world. It is a vision in which people can join together freely and build something grand, something better than we have seen so far in history, something that is worthy of that which is highest in our humanity. His speech was the essence of the creative process and structural tension: to envision the future and hold that dream while being truthful about reality.
His speech has entered into the international consciousness. His dream was one that all children understand when they ask the simplistic question, “Why can’t people get along?” No matter what condition the world finds itself in, be it the dark periods or the ages of enlightenment, we have the entrenched hope of peace, freedom, justice, and a world that can join together to build its civilization, to be able to join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”