“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.’”
The first time I watched the entire “I Have a Dream” speech there were two things that struck me. The first, obviously, was the sheer power of the oration.
“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, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
The man who spoke those words on Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington redefined the American Dream by the power of his word and his faith. And that day in Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached the zenith of his amazing oratorical gifts.
But the detail that always strikes me when I listen to the speech is the fact that it is not a speech but a sermon. The cadence of his sentences, the tone of his voice and its internal rhythm are those of a homily. Dr. King was a pastor and he was that day giving the most important sermon of his life. The style, the tone, the language and the biblical references are those of a sermon.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, 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. This is our hope. […] With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
During this week when we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, we remember the central role of religion in the fight from civil rights. From Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the fight against racism in America was often motivated by the Christian principles of the abolitionist and the civil rights fighters.
During the last decades, there has been a growing effort to obliterate religion from the public life of the country. The goal seems to be reducing religion to a strictly private matter. We have reached the point when it is considered bad taste or bigotry to be a ‘publicly religious’ person.
This past Friday, half a million people were expected to participate in the March for Life in Washington. Most of them are inspired by their religious convictions to participate in the political life of our country. They too are part of a precious American tradition. They are peacefully fighting for the rights of those most vulnerable.
The fight against racism has made great strides since the time of Dr. King, but sadly, it is far from over. On the other hand, the role of religion in the public arena and the political life of the country are less understood today than half a century ago. The extraordinary life of Dr. King reminds of us of the equally extraordinary role of faith in the history and the political life of the country he transformed with his dream.