“Man has strayed to the far countries of secularism, materialism, sexuality, and racial injustice. His journey has brought a moral and spiritual famine in Western civilization. But it is not too late to return home. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength To Love (1963; p. 92)
Those of us who would wish to commemorate the life, the struggle, the death – in essence, the reality – of Martin Luther King, Jr., might make a commitment to read more than a few paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech as part of our engaging in any public gathering on either the federal holiday honoring his birth or the day in April when we are confronted by his death. For far too long we have allowed several generations of young people to become reflexively bored with “MLK Events” and in some measure their (and, truth be told, our) disengagement with the man and the rituals in his honor might be due to a misreading of the usually quoted words in “I Have a Dream.” If we do not understand the old songs, as has been mentioned before, then we will no longer wish to sing them. If we do not live with all the significant texts and contexts of King’s thought, we risk losing him altogether.
Why did he need to dream, and why did he need to exhort others to dream on that day in 1963? The speech is constructed as a model of black ritual. The great black sermonic tradition produces texts that are often conservative; simultaneously comforting and challenging; and effective in capturing the imagination of the listeners into seeing hope where previously there had been only the “shadow of the valley of death.” Beginning with marking the place where his congregation was gathered as being holy ground -- The Lincoln Monument, the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the pilgrims becoming the multitudes marching into Zion: King evokes all of these necessary images at the outset of his remarks. And because, in his own wilderness encounter with the cries of the oppressed and crushed, he accepted the call to return to the city and proclaim what he had seen and heard, he uses Pentecostal rhetorical strategies to capture the attention of the entire world – which was listening that day; and since.
With very little warning, we are told that one hundred years after “emancipation,” “the Negro still is not free.” King lays out his vision of the valley of oppression by enumerating the broken promises of a republic that denies full citizenship to men and women who had (and have) as much claim to the land as any other inhabitants. He indicts those who use violence, legal manipulations and economic exploitation to maintain privilege over the victims left in the “dark and desolate valley” of segregation and indifference. But, in keeping with his reflections in Strength To Love, King will not allow the perpetrators of injustice to continue unchecked and he does not allow the victims of oppression to justify taking up the tools of the oppressors:
“But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…..Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Black Theology is liberation theology, grounded in the experience of the believers and confirmed by the truth of scripture. Martin Luther King, Jr., knows that one must dream, not on the mountain top, not on the “majestic heights”, but in the very basement of darkness and near despair. “I know my wings are gonna fit me well/ I tried them on at the gates of Hell.” Identifying with both Jacob’s children enslaved in Egypt and with the heroes like Moses, Joshua, Daniel, and David, those King called “my people” would return to police brutality, mob violence (both daylight public and night-time anonymous) and more years of nearly impregnable resistance to all calls for justice, freedom and respect for human rights.
The universality of King’s vision is rooted in the genius of Black Theology, among other sources. Those who claimed kinship with the Hebrew Children used their voices to become agents of their own liberation and added their voices to the prophetic choir of the Bible. Needing only the truth of their experience and the power of the Spirit to proclaim the liberating truth of their visions, the elders of the hush harbors did something that receives far too little attention today. Motherless children could nevertheless shout, “True Believer.” Those who felt that no one could possibly understand the trouble they had seen, nevertheless found deep within them a “Glory, Hallelujah!” to open yet another tomorrow. Those who spent many grief-filled nights abandoned and abused could still taste the banquet they would receive from the Welcome Table. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLR31UyuFP0]
But most importantly, they had the audacious confidence to supply what was lacking in the Covenant Statement of Exodus. God told the Israelites that they must embrace with compassion, mercy and remembrance all those who are the “widow, the orphan, the stranger” in their midst. Every time one of the old songs is sung, the singers become the strangers, the orphans, the widows, privileged by the attention of God. “A long ways from home.” A motherless child.” “Went into the valley and I couldn't hear nobody pray…” No, they tell us: you will bow down in grief, but you will not be broken by it. You will be called everything but a child of God. But you better live the truth as it has been revealed to you. You “been in the storm so long,” we know. But the Old Ship of Zion has room enough for all.
Use whatever it takes to get your head back up into the air. Even if it means dreaming that the children of the woman who just spit in your face and called you a nigger will someday clasp your children’s hands in friendship. Dream if you need a reason to walk up the rough side of the mountain; and dream that those who set the dogs upon you in the streets of Birmingham and Macon will someday join you in singing, “Free at Last” because they have found that your freedom brought freedom to their frightened and desiccated souls.
Dream, Martin. Because you had been beaten, imprisoned, shadowed, threatened and slandered – sometimes by those you would call brother and sister. Dream, Martin, because you knew that if you let your soul take flight while you stood high above the crowd, you would find the strength to walk among those who sought to slay the dreamer before too long. Dream, Martin, that those who hear your voice only faintly will find in the stillness after the storm they must endure, the hope that is built on the truth. I only feel like a motherless child…sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I can go on. And do.
Martin Luther King, Jr., means nothing to us if we do not understand that, even in his loneliest and most isolated moment, he knew that he had been the dream of those who long ago had looked over Jordan, and hoped for him. And it was never his dream alone. Can we tell our children we need them to be our dreams? And tell the world that we will never let them be anything less?