By Patrick Anderson
I watched the grainy, black-and-white television coverage as the march on Washington took place 50 years ago. I remember thinking this was a very important event, but it was long, sometimes tedious, and difficult to follow on the television.
Martin Luther King’s speech is the most remembered part of that event, and his riff on “I have a dream” remains the defining moment of the day. The event and King’s speech have grown in America’s consciousness over the past half century. The memory has a life of its own.
We forget, perhaps, that the title of the original speech was “Normalcy, Never Again.” When Dr. King began his presentation he seemed to stumble and appeared to be uncomfortable, even unsure of himself. He struggled with his sermon, the primitive sound system, the feedback from speakers, the crowded stage, the large and unwieldy audience.
The crowd of 250,000 had not traveled to the Mall primarily to hear this young pastor. Indeed, that crowd of people did not come to hear any one speaker, nor to get marching orders or to attend a political rally. They came for themselves and as an expression of their own condition as reflected in American culture. They were there more for heart reasons than for head reasons, driven by passion and emotion rather than by intellectual or cerebral motivations.
Today, if you hear the recording of the event, while Dr. King seemed to stumble early in his speech, you can faintly hear the voice of the great singer, Mahalia Jackson, standing in the crowd on stage just a few feet from the podium, saying “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”
Dr. King finally abandoned his prepared remarks and took off on the “I have a dream” riff that Jackson had heard him deliver while they traveled together days before, perhaps in Detroit. Those words do not appear in the original text, but they caused the people on the ground and people like me to erupt in expressions of joy, inspiration and resolve.
Dr. King’s style of spiritual leadership emerged in his sermon as he bonded with his audience. We sensed his deep belief that justice would not arrive in the world until human laws become based on the social justice values of heaven: Love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, etc.
But he did not tell us that “I have a plan!” He did not deliver a theoretical discourse on justice. He spoke to us of the dream he articulated so well for all.
This is the message for the church and for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
We love new programs. We live in the domain of strategic plans broken down in five year increments. But the message that brings people together is where we should dig deeper.
It is about the “why” not the “how” or “what.” Not many would remember a speech on “I Have a Plan.”
Like Dr. King, let’s articulate and sell the dream of hope, love, service, compassion and equality.
“Tell them about the Dream, Martin.”
Dr. Patrick Anderson is editor of Christian Ethics Today and is the former interim executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
This column is Part 4 of the Dr. King and Beloved Community series here at CBFblog. Check out other posts in this series below:
Part 1 — “Dr. King and Beloved Community — A CBFblog series” (by Aaron Weaver, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)
Part 2 — “The The Spiritual Discipline of Martin Luther King Jr.” (by Doug Weaver, Baylor University)
Part 3 — “Celebrating Dr. King and the Separation of Church and State” (by Charles Watson Jr., Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)