Dreaming and Waking: Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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 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 that one day down 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.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
I got to stand behind a pulpit that King used in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama.

These words from Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington are likely the most often broadcast and repeated in mainstream culture. Yet as we celebrate King’s life and legacy today, it strikes me that it was not this dream that got him killed, but rather the very concrete steps he demanded society take to move towards the dream.

Only the rare extremist will object to “little Black boys and Black girls” joining “hands with little white boys and white girls.” But many people objected—and continue to object—to the ways King sought to make that dream a reality.

King understood that reaching this dream requires economic justice. He led the Montgomery bus boycott and spoke about how the United States government has economically supported white people in ways it has not supported black people. In the final sermon of his life, King urged the Memphis congregation to support the striking sanitation workers and participate in boycotts of several companies.

King understood that reaching this dream requires the repudiation of violence. Many of us love to talk about King’s insistence on “peaceful protests,” but we don’t hear as much about his condemnation systemic violence and militarism. In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, King laments the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In a speech at the National Council on New Politics in 1967, he named “militarism” as one prong of a “triple prong sickness” of society (along with racism and materialism). And towards the end of his life, King became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the war in Vietnam.

King understood that reaching this dream requires civil disobedience—the intentional breaking of unjust laws. His illegal acts landed him in jail and led to criticism from “white moderates” who shared his dream, but condemned his “tactics.” One of King’s most famous pieces of writing is “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was written to his “Dear Fellow Clergymen” who were objecting to unlawful demonstrations in their city.

Most of us love the dream, but we may be less enthusiastic about the challenging and controversial work of moving toward that dream. It is telling that we refer to King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial as his “I Have a Dream” speech. We could pull out other words King spoke that day and talk about the “Legitimate Discontent” speech or the “Make Justice a Reality” speech, or the “Make Real the Promise of Democracy” speech or, my personal favorite, the “Whirlwind of Revolt” speech. It was not King’s dream that got him in trouble, but rather what he did while he was awake.

In contemplating the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am grateful for his dynamic articulation of a good and holy dream—his vision of the “beloved community.” I am grateful for the many ways he worked to move us all closer to that beautiful dream. And I am especially grateful for the ways his words, actions, and legacy continue to challenge us to act with faith, integrity, and fearlessness to make our dreams of justice and peace a reality.

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