Listen To Article
By Brian Keepers
It’s amazing to me that the most famous part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t what he originally planned to say that day. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 250,000 people, King spoke from a manuscript of carefully chosen words. Every once in a while, something he said would be met with applause.
But then a good speech suddenly turned into a great one. Singer Mahalia Jackson, who was up on stage near King, reportedly kept saying, “Tell’em about the dream, Martin!” King pushed his manuscript aside and let the preacher loose. He started to improvise. “I still have a dream today…” he thundered out.
King turned the lectern into a pulpit and he went off script for the rest of the speech, using his words to paint a picture of what could be if our nation was free of racism and injustice. “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King bellowed. “I have a dream that one day…little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I still have a dream today!”
King may have improvised in the moment but he wasn’t pulling these words out of thin air. The whole “I have a dream” sequence was one he had been preaching in black churches for a while and had already used at a Detroit rally to spectacular affect, according to Duke Divinity professor Richard Lischer in his exceptional book, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America.
Even more fascinating, Lischer points out that King’s dream wasn’t original to him. In fact, he wasn’t the first one to coin the immortal phrase, “I have a dream.” One evening, in the early days of the Albany campaign, King and his young associate James Bevel visited Mount Olive Church in “Terrible” Terrell County, Georgia. The night before, the church had been devoured by flames, one of seven black church burnings within a two-week period around Albany. King, Bevel and a handful of others went to conduct a service among the charred ruins of the church.
At the service a young woman, a college student who was a member of the SNCC, led a time of prayer for the community. As she prayed, she began to intone her own vision of the future with the phrase, “I have a dream.” That evening, the whole church, standing in the smoldering ashes of the sanctuary, found their souls buoyed up as their bodies swayed to rhythmic utterances of the phrase, “I have a dream.”
The metaphor of the dream was already at the heart of African American religion, as old as the Prophet Joel’s vision: “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” Other black preachers had ignited their own churches with cries like, “And I dream chill’un!” King had been working on his own version of “The American Dream,” but it seems that it was this night, among the ruins of Mount Olive Church, while being led in prayer by a college student, that this phrase “I have a dream” seized King and he made it his own. Reflecting on this, Lischer writes:
There is no such thing as an “original” dream. A powerful instance of the dream was alive that night at Mount Olive, ecstatic as the Holy Spirit and palpable as the hot, damp flesh that kept time with the speaker. King had a genius for absorbing through his pores the power that was all around him in the church and translating it for wider audiences. He borrowed nothing from that evening but, as one black preacher says it, he overheard much. Out of the Bible and the African American church and the plaintive prayer of a young woman came “I Have a Dream.” (p.94)
King is one of my heroes, even with all his complexities and flaws. He deserves to be commemorated on this day, and his words continue to stir the conscience of a nation. But here’s what I find so compelling about all of this. King may forever be credited with delivering one of the most important speeches of the 20th century, but it wasn’t just his dream. And he knew it. The “I” was a “We.” Always was. Still is now.
King’s genius, as Lischer makes clear, was not his originality but his uncanny ability to take what he was overhearing and, in the right moment, give voice to a dream that was bigger than himself. He took on the public role of a prophet, a role that was more agonizing than we will ever fully understand, in order to give voice to a dream that, when our better angels are awakened, is really our dream. Is it too much to say it is originally God’s dream?
In many ways, we’ve come so far since that sweltering day on August 28, 1963 when King delivered his famous speech on the Lincoln Memorial. In other ways, as evidenced over the past couple years and in more recent events, we have so very far to go.
Today, many of us will hear King’s “Dream” speech again. I know I plan to listen to it. And one of the reasons it will stir me again is because in King’s voice, I will hear a faint longing of my own. And I suspect so will you. In our better moments we will be inspired to raise our own voices—here and now—and in doing so, perhaps we will hear in our collective voices the intonations of the preacher King whose prophetic vision haunts us still.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.