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!”
Wrong era, wrong country. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is, like the moon landings, something I’ll only ever experience second-hand, with decades of context and scholarship and history and conspiracy theories ossifying around it. It’s an amazing speech even today, but to have stood before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights campaign, and just a couple of months before the Kennedy Assassination, must have been electrifying, visionary, transformative, one of the most iconic moments in a decade that feels like a thousand iconic moments stitched together.
3,000 miles away from where I sit today, America will be celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but his legacy, especially in a time of protest is relevant worldwide. That legacy is huge, covering everything from taking a stance against injustice to the importance of non-violence, but there’s another aspect to all this that may not get as much airplay today, although it’s something that’s stuck with me.
King came to prominance through the African-American church, with its preaching drenched in lyricism and a rapturous musical tradition, and his great speeches, two of which are quoted at either end of this post, reflect a poetry that’s been filtered through psalm-writers and prophets. His civil rights work was inseparable from his faith, and that raised an idea, a concept, a belief to the level of a vision.
If we take Hollywood as an authority, then visions are about the future – someone goes into a weird trance, all rolled eyes and strange camera angles and psychedelic rock, before delivering some ominous message. Maybe a crow will be watching them at the time, but the whole thing will be about the future – this is how things are going to unfold, and something, be it supernatural or even divine, will not be diverted from its path.
Well, that’s Hollywood for you.
Another way of looking at it is precisely that – another way of looking at things. In the Biblical tradition, that’s being granted the opportunity to see things through the eyes of God, and so visions and prophecy were as much commentary on current events as they were about the future. “This is the world you think you see,” says this idea, “But this is what it should be.”
And so King was a visionary in this sense, standing in front of thousands of expectant listeners and painting a picture of renewed and restored world while speaking with a prophectic voice against the sins of the present. There’s a line from the Bible that reads, in the sonorous tones of the King James Version, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And that’s hard to deny, because without a dream of a better world, the possibility of change, a sense of hope, what is there? Sure, life can go on as it always has, but if it’s founded on a false premise then sooner or later it’s going to crumble. In King’s case that was a state taking Melting-Pot America and trying to segregate it along racial lines. Nowadays it’s encouraging people to get educated, get rich, get famous, then immediately throwing them on the scrapheap of income inequality.
A better world is possible. It just needs visionaries to see it, envision it, preach it. Sometimes it’s not enough to protest – sometimes it’s necessary to inspire at the same time. That job often falls to prophets, dreamers, people who may be flawed – and King had his flaws – but who can still check out the burning bush, who can hear a still small voice amid the chaos, who can push forward and climb to the mountaintop. And that will attract naysayers and cynics and killers, but it’ll also attract crowds and communities and movements. And then the world will change because the vision is too powerful, too compelling, too true to fall. And as King declared, on the day before he died in 1968:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”