Two score and one decade ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous words, “I have a Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This seminal speech marked a turning point in the civil rights movement leading to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts in subsequent years. This Wednesday (August 28, 2013) marks the fifty year anniversary of this historical event.
In 1961, only two years prior to Washington march, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the sermon “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension” in a chapel service at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. King was no stranger to Southern Seminary, as he had attended on a few prior occasions when his mother served as the organist for the Woman’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention which held meetings on the campus.
Henlee Barnette, an ethics professor at the seminary, observed that King closed his sermon “with a typical peroration that characterizes many of his messages by noting that there is something in this universe which justifies the poet’s conviction that truth will triumph.”
King’s confidence in the triumph of truth was founded upon his broader biblical convictions. While his orations, like the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, give ample references to our nation’s founding documents—they find their deepest authority in the revelation of God as creator.
This belief in a Creator, wed to a biblical understanding of humanity, propelled King’s bold outlook for the future; a dream he was willing to both live and die for. This three-strand theme of the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and optimism for the future permeates, not only King’s speeches, but so much of the historical language surrounding the fight for freedom and equality.
The eighteenth-century image used by the British anti-slavery campaign offers a visual depiction of this reality with the caption, “Am I not a man and a brother?” (below). Those who wished to defend and advance slavery often did so by making the case that some races were less than human. The language used to combat such ignorance was inescapably biblical. The brotherhood of man is a logical outworking of the doctrine of the fatherhood of God.
In a day when skepticism claims so much of the headlines, it is important to underscore the religious nature of the fight for civil rights. Here’s a few examples:
I Have a Dream:
“In a sense we have 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. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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 . . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The Emancipation Proclamation:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free . . . . And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
– Abraham Lincoln
On the Horrors of Slade Trade (Delivered in the House of Commons in 1789):
“And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?”
– William Wilberforce
Abolition Speech (1789)
“I take courage – I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade . . . let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
– William Wilberforce
Speech before the House of Commons (1791)
“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied.”
– William Wilberforce
Inscription from Wilberforce Memorial in London’s Westminster Abbey:
” . . . by the blessing of God, (he) removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the Empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream is a really a call to return to the biblical understanding of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. It is a dream that requires us to first look back, so that we can then move forward. For King, it was a look back into our nation’s founding documents, but only to see beyond them into the transcendent reality of what it means to be created in the Image of God.
So as we remember King’s brave speech, let us also remember the biblical principles that shaped his most dearly held convictions, that led him to conclude that powerful charge, fifty years ago, with this beautiful refrain:
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to 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!'”