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Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist preacher born months before the crash of 1929 that led the Great Depression, is perhaps best known for leading this country to end segregation. After years of nonviolent struggle, including boycotting buses in Montgomery, and a march on Washington, King gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial that changed the world. Many scholars believe that King’s speech was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. I believe the inspiration came from sources much closer to home. The Declaration of Independence, by Abraham Lincoln, and the Bible are the sources that I believe to have fundamentally inspired Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream”.
As a child raised in a middle-class neighborhood, King had more privileges than most of his peers. He was heavily influenced by his father, a preacher, and his mother, a teacher. He had mild run-ins with segregation in his childhood. He was forced to attend school separate from his childhood friends and eventually, he and his friends were no longer allowed to play together.
From the research of his life, there appears to be one event that made a lasting impression upon King. After a speech competition in Valdosta, Georgia, King had received a second place prize, but his victory was short-lived. During the long bus ride home, the blacks were made to stand so that white riders could sit. It seemed that even though the Civil War ended in 1865, over 80 years later the black man was not much further along than in the days directly following the war. It makes me wonder were Lincoln’s efforts on the part of the slave all in vain?
On August 28, 1963, King began his speech with the same four words as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; perhaps this was to remind us of Lincoln’s shared vision.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
This reference to Lincoln’s speech is perhaps more meaningful since King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial during this address.
History states that Lincoln’s authority and position were granted to him by the Declaration of Independence. In that document, our founding fathers declared, “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.” By reminding the listeners, including the millions watching his speech on television, King hoped to jump-start his audience’s minds in to agreement with him by joining his argument with those of the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln. King uses the agreement with the founding fathers and Lincoln to strengthen his civil and legal argument as basis to his premise that things were not yet as they should be.
To strengthen his moral argument further, and perhaps most interestingly, King seems to have numerous biblical references within the text of his speech. This should not be that surprising, given that he had been the son of a preacher and preacher himself since the age of 17. However, it seems important that the first opportunity for a black man to address the nation for all of the wrongs done to his people, that King decided to quote from the bible.
King chose to take the high road in this speech. He could have ridiculed America for its treatment of black men and women, but instead he reminded us all to relinquish the cup of hostility by saying, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” This phrase reminds us of Jeremiah 2:13:
For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
He reminds us of our history, our past release from captivity, referring to slavery, but he is encouraging us not to choose hatred and return to bondage. King’s words, “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” refer to the promise of Psalms 30:5:
“For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
While it seems that the Lord has been angry with us, by allowing our continued oppression, King says to America, he reminds us that we are not finished. That although the chains of captivity may have been lifted by Lincoln, they are not yet removed. “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” refers to Amos 5:24, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
King’s then offers up a vision that all the listeners and viewers by television can grasp, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and 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,” is almost a direct quote of Isaiah 40:4-5:
Every valley shall be exalted, and very mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
King closed his speech by applying the inspiring words of Galations 3:28, “And when this happens, . . . 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, I’m free at last.”
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Martin Luther King, Jr. helped right a nation. Given the chance to cast stones, he chose instead to cast a vision. A vision that one day men and women in America would actually one day be equal and free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. This vision is not new. Our Biblical history tells us that Jesus cast the same vision before us thousands of years ago. Throughout the bible, God gave his people a choice between life and death. By standing on the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the actions of Abraham Lincoln, and the tenets of the bible, King’s speech, I Have a Dream speech simply reminded us to choose life, to appreciate life, and to respect our brothers and sisters no matter their race or creed.
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