The world is not the way it will be. We do not yet see all things subject to Christ. We walk in shadowlands, filled with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. I’m grateful for visions and dreams that awaken and provoke, and as I consider how others have lived out their dreams, both faithfully and imperfectly, I find myself comforted, convicted, and compelled.
Today, as an American nation, we remember the life and dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. Only 39 years old, his beautiful life met tragic end. Born 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, he died 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He fought with soul force to see an end to segregation. Segregation was a pervasive vice, an evil vestige of deep rooted bigotry and hatred towards African Americans, that nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the ‘official’ end of slavery, still bore wicked fruit. 5 years before his tragic death, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King spoke of a wondrous dream.
He heralded a dream that this great republic would honor and fulfill the obligation it pledged and owed to all God’s children. He praised America for its promise in the Declaration of Independence, that all men, ‘yes, black men as well as white men,’ would be guaranteed the sacred rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet he rebuked America for failing to honor this promissory note. Black men and women sought to cash this check and it bounced, ‘insufficient funds.‘
But King refused to believe the ‘bank of justice’ was bankrupt. Despite the shadowy South he believed the Sun would rise and that this nation would finally deliver to black men and women ‘the riches of freedom and the security of justice.’ He continued to dream…
“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 slaveowners 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.” 1
And though patient, King called for brothers and sisters to take action. Four months earlier, after being imprisoned for a peaceful protest in Birmingham, King penned his most famous letter, to clergy who were urging gradualism, complaining that King was too impatient in his longings for reform. With prophetic zeal, King graciously appealed:
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity;… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children…when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” men and “colored”…There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” 2
And so King labored, working hard for “justice to roll down.’ King’s final herald came in April 1968 in Memphis. He travelled to Memphis in support of poor sanitation workers, crying out for justice. With torrential weather delaying his travels and wearied by fatigue and a lingering cold, King wasn’t aiming to speak. But the people insisted.
So King eventually arrived and delivered a spontaneous, powerful, prophetic speech. King reflected, looking back at significant moments in human history, thanking God that he was placed on earth for such a time as this. He recounted, forebodingly on his own life and how in 1958, while in New York City for his book signing of Strides Toward Freedom, he was stabbed by a deranged 42 year old African American woman. He jokingly recalled the doctors telling him that if he had sneezed, he would have bled to death, as the blade nearly struck his aorta. In his final prose, King thanks God that he didn’t sneeze.
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. 3
Again with prophetic foreboding, he ends with these final words…
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And 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!
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.” 4
The next morning at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King was shot and killed. King could have waited, he could have been silent, he could have found a nice peaceful pasture in which to grow old, he could have quietly ignored the burning in his bones, this dream of justice rolling down like water, but King knew he was born for such a time as this and he just wanted to do God’s will. And though imperfect and flawed like all of us, God powerfully used King to refresh and bless the lives of millions of African American brothers and sisters, sweltering in the heat of oppression, shackled in the chains of segregation, sick of injustice. In 1964 after King’s Birmingham Prison Letter and the Children’s March which followed, the American conscience was further awakened and the Civil Right Act was signed into law, outlawing segregation and discrimination.
Was King’s Dream realized? For some, yes. For others, not yet. But we trust, with Dr. King, that one day all flesh shall see the glory of the the Lord, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. For that great vision, that great dream, we pray and hope and labor. So today, I am grateful for men like Martin Luther King Jr. who remind me to dream, to pray, to work hard for the good of our brothers and sisters and the glory of God!