Friday, August 30, 2013

The Christian Foundations of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - American Declaration of Independence.

Notwithstanding, the odious Jim Crow laws were enacted.  Official segregation in the United States was made law.

An important impetus for the Civil Rights Movement was an incident on a segregated bus, which lead a young activist by the name of Martin Luther King, to arrange the  Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.

A fairly young Black lady, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white man. Rosa would later recount:

"I'd see the bus pass every day... But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world."

In her autobiography, she wrote:

People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

Failing to obey the order of the bus driver to give up her seat to a white, she was arrested and charged.

This incident, which prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott,  catapulted the young Martin Luther King into fame, or infamy, however one wishes to interpret it. This would later be an important motivating factor in King's "I have a Dream" speech, yet he never used the incident as vindication for retaliatory violence against whites. He simply stated "I have a Dream", and that dream was the non-violent way of protest, influenced by Gandhi, but ultimately derived from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (Matthew 5)

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the Civil Rights Movement was heavily prompted by what seemed at the time an inconsequential act of civil disobedience on the part of Rosa Parks, which led the religiously motivated Martin Luther King to so forcefully try to awake the American people to racism in America.

The really remarkable thing, is that Martin Luther King was so forgiving, so hopeful, and so wanting to promote a Brotherhood of Mankind. It was never a case of "revenge" against whites, but a call to dialogue, and a plea for whites to realise that the colour of one's skin has nothing to do with the quality of character.

King's vision was essentially one where "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them".

And maybe a Black little child.

King was originally a skeptic, and a disbeliever in Christianity, but:

However, he later concluded that the Bible has "many profound truths which one cannot escape" and decided to enter the seminary.

Hence he became the Reverend Martin Luther King.  Without that spiritual insight, that vision, that dream, that hope, and that faith, the Civil Rights Movement may well have been delayed by at least ten years. It would have happened, eventually, but Martin Luther King, like a prophet, was willing to preach that which was most unpopular at the time. The impossible dream of Blacks and whites living together in peace and harmony.

Today, with a Black US president, King's prophetic insights seem somewhat unremarkable, unless we remember just how bad and hopeless it was at the time when he gave his "I have a Dream" speech. Motivated by his deep Christian beliefs, and adopting Gandhi's non-violent protest ideal, which stemmed from Gandhi's own reading of the New Testament, Martin Luther King well understood the power of the message in The Sermon on the Mount.

When King was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy gave a short speech, which is now partly engraved in stone at the Arlington National Cemetery:

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
        My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Arlington National Cemetery:

Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white lead to her conviction, and ultimately to the birth of the  Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s. 

I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005, at 92 years of age. 

Rosa Parks with Bill Clinton:

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