By now lots of people know it was Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who shouted “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” during the 1963 March on Washington. If it wasn’t for her, one of the most famous speeches in American history might have been decidedly less famous. And possibly forgotten altogether.
The dream part wasn’t in Dr. King’s prepared text. But Mahalia and others had heard him speak of it. He just needed to be reminded of something that was already deeply embedded in his soul.
Those beautiful words have become so famous in the 56 years since 1963 that most people identify Dr. King by that speech. Ask any school child who the man was, and they will tell you — he had a dream and was assassinated.
The trouble with repeating something for 53 years is that it loses some of its power to influence and inspire. Not all of it. I certainly get choked up whenever I hear it. But you know how it is. There are parts of the speech we can all recite by heart. It no longer has quite the same quality as when the words, prompted by the Gospel-singer muse, broke loose from the great man’s soul.
The grandeur of that speech casts a great shadow. So great it tends to obscure what may be Dr. King’s core message.
King’s “Dream” speech retains its power and deserves our attention because the man who delivered it lived by the core values expressed in his “But If Not” sermon delivered five months before his death. Focusing on the dream speech without understanding the core commitment that gave it light and power overshadows the source in order to favor the effect. We love the dream speech — but can we also love the existential commitment to “right for the sake of right” without which the dream would fizzle?
The “But If Not” sermon is about an act of civil disobedience. It’s about a king who tells three slaves to bow down and worship an idol. The slaves refuse, and the king threatens to throw them in a fiery furnace. Undaunted, the slaves tell the king they believe God will deliver them from the furnace. But even if He doesn’t, they won’t be bowing down to any false idols any time soon.
The story is a two-minute read in the Bible’s Book of Daniel. But Dr. King’s interpretation of it is just as stirring as “I Have a Dream.” Because it’s in that sermon that he says don’t do the right thing because you want to avoid hell or go to heaven. Do it because it’s the right thing, and be willing to die for it if necessary.
But here’s the part that really gives me goosebumps.
“And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
So why talk about “But If Not” on the anniversary of “I Have a Dream”? Because if anyone else had given the Dream speech that day it would not have had the same impact. Because the Dream speech gets its power from “But If Not.”
We know with the hindsight of history that the man who delivered that famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 will be dead in less than five years. He’s standing there talking about something he’s willing to die for. And in fact does.
It’s important to remember the Dream speech. It’s also important to understand that King’s dream was rooted in the American dream that all men are created equal. It’s equally important to believe, as King did, that injustice and oppression can be transformed into “an oasis of freedom and justice.” We need to remember those things, especially now.
But in that remembering, isn’t it a good idea not to forgetthat you don’t just come up with words like that because some Gospel singer yells at you from the audience. The only way you can talk like that is to live like that. Maybe it’s time to step outside the shadow of “I Have a Dream” and connect with the light that gives it such power.
What follows is the full "But If Not" sermon, which is 22 minutes long. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing now, check out the brief 90-second excerpt just below it. But come back to the full speech if you can. You won’t be sorry.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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