Martin Luther King’s birthday is marked on 15 January each year, especially in the United States. It is a day on which to remember a man who endeavoured to make a vision real. It was a vision not only for black Americans but for all people. As he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
One way to begin exploring Martin Luther King’s vision is by re-visiting the speech he delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on 28 August 1963.
Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech is one of the great speeches of the 20th century. It recalls the passion of the Hebrew prophets (e.g. Isaiah 40:4-5) and echoes the social critiques of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a speech that reaches to the heart of what Christian justice means and requires in practice.
“He was the first Negro minister whom I have ever heard who can reduce the Negro problem to a spiritual matter and yet inspire the people to seek a solution on this side of the Jordan, not after death.”
(Louis Lomax, African-American journalist and author, at the time of Martin Luther King’s death in 1968)
King gave the speech at the climax of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He called for racial equality and an end to racial discrimination, only adding the famous repeated phrase, “I have a dream…”, at the last minute. These words, and the unmistakable voice that uttered them, still have the power to inspire whenever they are heard. King may have had specific goals in mind, but his commitment to justice easily translates to other countries and quite different contexts.
(Also see: “I have a dream” – resources)
In 1986, Pamela Pettitt, wrote a hymn to mark the renaming of the Northern Baptist College’s property in Manchester as “Luther King House”. She took as her starting point King’s resonant phrase:
“I have a dream”, a man once said,
“where all is perfect peace;
where men and women, black and white,
stand hand in hand, and all unite
in freedom and in love.”
She goes on to demand our constant restlessness for justice: “… never be content; / for thoughts and words don’t ease the pain: / unless there’s action, all is vain; /faith proves itself”:
… don’t let us rest until we see
your love throughout humanity
uniting us in peace.
A number of hymns in Singing the Faith not only address wider issues of justice and peace (see the Justice and Peace section, StF 693 – 723) but also pick up on specific themes and concerns addressed by Dr King in his speech.
Who was Martin Luther King speaking for? He used his voice and gift for oratory on behalf of those who had no voice. People like Rosa Parks, whose quiet act of protest on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, helped spark the American civil rights movement. I will speak out for those who have no voices by David Bankhead et al (StF 702) speaks of the Christian imperative to speak for the voiceless and act for the powerless: “I will show God’s compassion / to the crushed and broken in spirit; / I will lift up the weak in Jesus’ name.” The hymn’s words echo those of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry: Luke 1: 14-21 (cf. Isaiah 61: 1). (This hymn text works well as a shared prayer of commitment.)
Who are the prophets today? Who acts prophetically in our communities today? How would we define a prophet? Are we ourselves prophetic in our words or actions, public or private? Dan Damon declares that “true prophets challenge us to change, / to wake and wonder, risk and grow…” “God bids us rise to speak and move / like prophets in a lighted stage” (When listening prophets dare to speak, StF 163)
“To anyone who was ever there when King spoke, the experience was unforgettable. A small man, barely five-foot seven, he dominated the pulpit or podium. In a slow but sonorous voice, the biblical cadences rolled out… And the church doors would open and the crowd would surge out into the hot and dusty Southern street, and down to the court house or the city hall with its petitions, its banners and its faith that change was on the way.”
(Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian after the assassination of King in April 1968)
What does the example of Jesus show us? John Bell and Graeme Maule present Jesus as a servant and campaigner on behalf of God’s will. (Heaven shall not wait, StF 701) In his actions heaven is seen on earth: “injustice confronts it timely end”. See also Andrew Pratt’s Love inspired anger (StF 253), which draws upon scenes from the life of Jesus and ends with a vision of love-inspired anger “that still can set us free / from the world’s conventions / bringing liberty”.
How do we move beyond guilt? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to help black and white communities in South Africa move forward following the abolition of the apartheid system in the early 1990s. A similar model of restorative justice has been tried in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. In We cannot measure how you heal (StF 655), John Bell and Graeme Maule address head-on the need to address long-term pain and guilt alike: “The pain that will not go away, / the guilt that clings from things long past…” They offer the example of Jesus in a text which is about our attempts to “disentangle peace from pain / and make your broken people whole”. (See also a hymn drawn from the apartheid era in South Africa: Oh freedom, Oh freedom, Oh freedom. / Freedom is coming. Oh yes I know (StF 697)