Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"I Have a Dream" turns 50 today.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It would be more accurate to call it a sermon.

Time Magazine's latest issue is dedicated to remembering this historic American moment and does an excellent job of allowing participants of the march to tell their stories. The issue is worth picking up. Reading it, I was struck by how many of the participants understood the march in the context of their faith.

Jerome Smith, one of the Freedom riders, recalled "It was a procession of church. It was never, ever a march. It was a congregation that was answering the call."

I learned that at a particular moment in the speech, King began to struggle with his material, material that had been assembled by a committee of people. It wasn't until King heard from behind him the voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson saying, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin. Tell 'em about the dream" that King set aside his prepared text and transformed this speech into a sermon.

As Martin set aside his notes, one of his speech writers, Clarence Jones, turned to the person next to him and said, "These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church."

Indeed. Among the many things Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that day is the often forgotten truth: a good sermon can turn the world upside down.


There are many great biographies of MLK. The only one I know of that focuses on his preaching is Richard Lischer's The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. I found the book fair in its treatment of Martin Luther King as an actual human being and not simply a non-human icon of some sort. It is also an excellent look into the rich history of African American preaching in our country.


  1. MLK was a modern day prophet.

  2. Like most prophets, he was hated in his day and only posthumously honored, mainly by people who would probably still be uneasy to have him alive and speaking in their presence (I include myself in that group). His comments on race, war, and income inequality still have a place in the church's life today even if they are an uncomfortable place for most of us.