After all, anybody can dream. Many others speak about their inner visions, though perhaps not as eloquently as Dr. King. What then made his particular dream different from those put forward by others who espoused the same thing? Why did he get to be the spokesman for truth, justice and righteousness, lead the March on Washington, win the Nobel Prize? Certainly, he was a great orator, a man of learning, gifted with a great intelligence, armed with a PhD. But were those things enough to make him the man whose birth we celebrate with a national holiday?
If that’s all it took to close the post office and most banks, we’d have more holidays than we'd know what to do with.
People talk about Martin’s moral courage, say that he was put here by God. But even these things don’t quite cover it. How then to account for him? By what road does one travel to become the Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and death are justly remembered. To find the answer, you need only listen to his important “But If Not” sermon, delivered five months before his death.
Great men are like light bulbs—their illumination comes from connection to the Source. They know the difference between “If faith” and “Though faith.” And they understand that fear is the enemy.
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. Focusing on the dream (as we do, perhaps ad nauseum, on the King holiday) without understanding the core commitment that gave it light and power overshadows the source in order to favor the effect. We love the speech--why wouldn't we? But can we also love the existential commitment to "right for the sake of right" without which the dream would fizzle?
If you think Martin's “I Have a Dream” is stirring, his “But If Not” sermon will give you goose bumps on top of goose bumps. It will make you wonder why you live the way you do and whether you might do things differently—if only you were not afraid.
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.
Novelist Nathaniel West, Playwright Arthur Miller & Actors Montgomery Clift, Howard Rollins, Jr., Born This Day
Author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, he was born this day in 1903. Since it's also the birthday of actor, Montgomery Clift, here is a clip showing his starring role in the 1958 film adaptation of Lonelyhearts. It's followed by the trailer for John Schlesinger's beautiful adaptation of The Day of the Locust.
Born this day in 1915, this "last of the great playwrights" is remembered nowadays for writing Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and The Misfits. And also for marrying Marilyn Monroe. Here is a clip from Miller's Charlie Rose interview about why today's theater seems to lack the greatness of the past.
Howard Rollins, Jr.
Before he was typecast as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night, Howard Rollins, Jr., born this day in 1950, gave us exquisite performances in A Soldier's Story and Ragtime. Here is a clip from the latter.
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