Today, our nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr., a man that worked tirelessly to advance the rights of all Americans. His legacy lives on and we (rightfully) need to continue to acknowledge this great prophet for the work he did, and the way he modeled a life of justice, righteousness, love, compassion, and grace; and yet do so free of the traditional taming that we are often guilty of.
When I teach an introductory speech class, I pass out well known speeches to the class, and then in groups, I have them rank each speech in terms of their perceived importance in American political and social history.
And students continually pick King’s “I have a dream” speech as the most well known and influential.
I think they’re right.
But as I reflect on the speech, I am blown away by something more than the words that King says.
It’s the fact that it was largely improvised.*
King had a planned speech, and a few notes jotted down, but someone in the crowd shouted out, “Tell em about the dream Martin!”
And after a brief pause, he declared these famous words.
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.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little 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.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
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.”**
Which means that these words weren’t just letters on a paper to him. This wasn’t a show, a perception, or an image. He wasn’t striving for power, position, leadership, or influence. His goal wasn’t to be popular.
His goal was to be faithful.
You can’t improvise those words if they aren’t first and foremost a part of who you are. You can’t deliver a message like that if you first haven’t been shaped to truly believe that message. You can’t shape the future of a thousand generations if you first don’t believe and practice what you’re trying to serve to everyone else.
And I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in John 15 where he says in part, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
King was a man that knew what it meant to abide in Jesus. It’s why his voice was so captivating. What I see ultimately pictured in Jesus is what I see lived in King, someone who knew what it meant to abide in God and live by his values. Someone that loved people just as they are, but loved them so much that they couldn’t leave them that way. Someone that spoke the truth in love, calling and urging people to find their rest and home in God.
And I’m blown away, because I realize how I am often so unlike that. How I often have ulterior motives or a desire to hedge the bets or skew the results in my favor. How I so often like extending grace, but only to those that can extend it to me first. How quickly I am to move on or discard something that God still calls precious and beautiful.
How if someone asked me to tell a crowd about my dream, not only would it be far less eloquent, it would be far more self serving and shallow.
So today, as I celebrate and reflect on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. I choose to remember more than the words, the activist, or the history of events that he brought about thorough his peaceful activism. I also choose to remember and celebrate a man that was so deeply shaped by the Spirit of Jesus that he had no choice but to call out the injustice that was rampant and demand change. I choose to remember a man that knew not only what it meant to abide, but what it meant to produce fruit.
And I sure hope someday I can be like that. A man of both content and character. A man impressed by the Spirit to inspire and challenge others forward for change, for shalom restoration, for a full and abundant life in God.
*retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/
**retrieved from: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm