Christianity and Martin Luther King's Dream

The nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's dream on August 28.  In 1963, King gave what many communication experts view as the greatest speech of the past 100 years.  Yet despite the speech's popularity, experts continue to miss or diminish one of the more essential characteristics of the speech's success: Christianity.

In the 1990s, I attended an academic conference where a communication scholar was presenting about a research question regarding why King so regularly employed the rhetorical form known as the jeremiad.  That particular form of speech is based on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah; it is a prophetic style of argument that calls an audience toward repentance and reconciliation with God's purpose.  Ultimately, the scholar concluded in a perplexed tone that perhaps King was influenced by political groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Eventually a hand came up in the back, and a participant asked the scholar if he thought King's being a Baptist minister might have influenced his decision to use an Old-Testament rhetorical form.  The scholar was completely surprised to learn that King was a Baptist minister.

It was in the 1990s when my own rhetorical study program at the University of Kansas dropped biblical allusions as a required recognition item for great speech study -- since students had such a hard time recognizing the allusions.  Despite the rise of secular paradigms in the academy, King's speech and the larger civil rights movement remain fundamentally connected to Christianity.  Had contemporary norms of "separating church and state" prevailed at the time, there likely would have been no civil rights movement.

The "I Have a Dream" speech contains two rather clear biblical allusions: to Amos 5:24 and Isaiah 40: 4-5.  When King intoned, "[J]ustice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream," he was following the words of the Old-Testament prophet Amos, who asked God to "let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

Later, in the more passionate crescendo of the speech, King explained: 

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."

This is a direct quotation of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah was appealing to well-understood Jewish expectations of the messiah.  Anticipation of the messiah meant that the world would be reconciled and corrected toward the arrival of the new savior.  Christians like King interpret the verse as foreshadowing Jesus.

King and other civil rights leaders directed the movement from pulpits and rhetorically managed the archetypal power of Jewish and Christian thought in American life to change the political realities of the nation.  The effort to secularize King and forget his Christian premises is misguided.  Christopher Hitchens, for example, argued rather dramatically: "In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was [King] a Christian," -- basically, King was too nice to be a Christian.  That condescending sarcasm is symptomatic of contemporary intellectual culture that has progressed from Stephen Carter's Culture of Disbelief toward a "Culture of Contempt."

Despite such peculiar reservations, King and the civil rights movement argued from the intellectual standpoint of religious faith.  The public acceptance of King's dream was rooted there as well.  On April 3, 1968, King would deliver another stunning address in Memphis, known as the Mountaintop speech.  King spoke at the Church of God in Christ Temple, saying:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? ... Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. 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. 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.

Here again the Christian prophetic voice is clear; it alludes profoundly to the Jewish tradition of Moses seeing the promised land for the Israelites but not being allowed to enter.  This speech came to sear the American political conscience, because the next day, King was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis hotel.  It became difficult to imagine that King was not in fact inspired by God to see the future he faced the evening before his assassination.  King reduced his circumstances to an essential component of Christian life: "I just want to do God's will."

Attempting to understand King's speech and his larger movement stripped of its Christian paradigm reduces its meaning and diminishes our ability to fully grasp and accomplish it today.  Both the words and the actions of the civil rights movement pose a profound challenge to our relatively secular political sphere today.  Those following God's will will have to count the cost, as King did, and press on. 

The practical heroism possible in Christian faith was on display recently when Antoinette Tuff disarmed a man carrying 500 rounds of ammunition and a loaded AK-47 into an elementary school, by lovingly talking him toward surrender.  The ten-minute 911 call has mesmerized the nation and earned her a call from President Obama.  Tuff explained later: "My pastor, he just started this teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord," she said.  "I just sat there and started praying. I just remembered the teaching and how he taught us [church members] how to consult people when they're bereaving and all that."

The world needs more courage like that displayed by King and Tuff, anchored in faith.  Such faith will further fulfill King's dream.

Ben Voth is the director of debate and speech programs and an associate professor in communication studies at Southern Methodist University.

If you experience technical problems, please write to