Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” delivered on 28th august, 1963 at the Washington mall considered as the sermon of Black Baptist Tradition. This speech is recognized as the touch stone of American memory in the struggle of civil rights. The dream speech of king is deeply rooted in the ‘American Dream’, inspired heavily from the nation’s foundation texts but the primary source from which the speech has drawn its metaphorical and rhetorical language is Bible.
Martin Luther King Jr. is known as the greatest American civil rights leader.
The public of United States saw king as the leader whose ideology is unintentionally based on Christian theology. Although if we look at the background of Luther’s life we’ll realize that he was deeply influenced by the black church tradition and he deliberately depicted himself as the preacher of Christian values.
As a young black man, Luther felt the frustration of the black community and probably faced the racial discrimination but instead following the rebellious communist idea of equality, he chose the option of love and traditional value of African-American church which follows the humanity of Jesus Christ .The repetitive use of biblical references in his works are the result of his childhood familiarity with the black church and later spending years in studying theology academically. The influence of African -American church values is recognized as the major source of his ideology which leads to his recurrent use of bible in his works. Luther Ivory also described him as “a product of a black religious tradition that regarded the scripture as the most important lens through which he interpret reality”. The role of bible in the African-American churches is like the mirror and Luther as the preacher of bible knew that people will respond by recoginsing themselves in it.
Like the other works of Luther, “I Have a dream” also excessively draws from the spirited tradition of African- American religious rhetoric and biblical teaching. It is keen to note that black Christians deeply believed in the God of exodus. The Old Testament book of exodus narrates the departure of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt led by Moses. It is significant to note that exodus treated as an archetypal myth for slaves. The black church believed the idea of how the sacred history of god’s liberation of his people was repeated in American south. Abolitionists and leaders like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper often compared American slaves with the Hebrews in Egypt.
Martin Luther was well aware of his audience. The majority were Christians and Jewish who were well acquainted with the Bible. He used direct references from the bible in the speech which clearly depicts how king saw the African-Americans as the parallel of Hebrews in Egypt. His speech has direct references from the book Amos 5:24 and (Second) Isaiah 40:4-5, which enables him to recreate his own biblical narrative. By using familiar quotations from Bible, king gained attention from the audience and this gradually helped him to propagate his theological ideology among the audience.
David Miller pointed out how Martin Luther used the King James Version Bible rather than the standard version because the language of King James Bible is more poetic. So, it’s crucial to note that how Luther emphasized on the structural and rhetorical aspect of his speech.
King used the phrase from the book of Amos in his speech,
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never- failing stream”. (“I have a dream”)
These lines do not merely provide the rhetoric effect to the speech but they have a long chain of signifiers which were identified by his religious audience. King used the quotation to invoke the same idea of justice that Amos demanded for the poor in the Israelite region. While expressing grief for exploitation of poor, Amos continuously reminded the elite people of the God’s Justice and how he freed Hebrews. By using this quotation, king draws the idea of how Amos’s expression for god’s justice is universal in nature.
Later in the speech, he used another quotation from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:4-5):
“…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight”. (“I have a dream”)
By using the reference from the book Isaiah, Luther tried to recapitulate the biblical vision of Promised Land. King draws parallel between the prophecy of hopes which happened after the events of Amos; and after the Babylonians had hauled the Hebrews into captivity and exile in 587 BCE with the racism free America. The Promised Land that Luther captured in the speech has harmony and happiness.
As David miller said:
“..By citing second Isaiah vision of renovated innocence through a return to the
Homeland King appeals to widely shared memories of a biblical text that defines religion through narratives about the journey of an entire people from slavery to freedom, from the wilderness to the Promised Land, and from the exile back to the homeland.”
Martin Luther draws similarity between the Hebrews in the bible with African-Americans. He framed African American as enslaved and exile people who are in the need of consolation. He hoped in the god who eliminated Hebrew bondage in Egypt and Hebrew captivity in Babylon. He believed that the same god can eliminate the long exile and suffering of African- American and he can set them free.
There is also a subtle reference from the Psalm 30:5,
“..Weeping may star for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning”.
Using this allusion Luther made his argument as morally apt.King tried to explain the fact that in life problems will come and the faith will be questioned but people should always follow the path of god.
Another reference in the speech was taken from the Galatian 3:28,
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is their male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The idea behind this passage of bible is that, the god created everyone equal and everyone has a reflection of god in their inner self. By using this reference he questioned the racial prejudices and demanded equal rights for the people who were exploited due to their race.
Martin Luther’s ideology was widely influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. Like Gandhi, who used religion as a tool to propagate nationalism in India. Luther also used his theological ideas to preach the idea of racism free society. Both the leader, Gandhi and Luther accepted the fact that religion has a great influence over the state, therefore their ideas always revolve around the religious aspect. Martin Luther believed that religious stories are familiar because they are relatable to the materialistic and spiritual conditions of life. As Luther defined ideal religion as:
“Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic condition that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion”
Martin Luther challenged the racism of the American society with his theological views which are depicted in his speech “I have a dream”. He was aware with the fact that for the white christens bible has been the rule of faith and life. By using the Baptist traditional values, Luther tried to create a parallel between the stories of bible and the reality of America. For him religion is the fundamental aspect of life hence he draws his arguments from the biblical narratives and hoped for the “Promised Land” which was free from racial discrimination.
- Luther King Jr., Martin. “I have a dream”. August 28, 1963.
- Miller, Keith. “Second Isaiah Lands in Washington D.C: Martin Luther King Jr. “ I have a dream” as Biblical Narrative and Biblical Hermeneutic”, Rhetoric reviews, JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20176807
- Smylie, James. “On Jesus, Pharaohs, and the chosen People: Martin Luther King as Biblical Interpreter and humanist.” JSTOR: article No. 002096437002400105