Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington August 28, 1963, is one of the most important and well-known speeches in American history. Far less known is that the actual speech he had before him on the podium that day had no mention of a dream whatsoever.
For years, Dr. King had been writing and speaking about his dream. He dreamed that one day racial oppression would no longer threaten the American creed that all of humanity is created equal. He dreamed that every man, woman, and child would be seen as an heir to the legacy of worthiness, and he dreamed that the American people would learn to cultivate this worthy perspective. He spoke so often of having a dream, in fact, that his inner circle was afraid the phrase had become overused and trite. The night before the March on Washington, Dr. King and his closest advisors worked together to come up with an entirely new message. “I have a dream” did not appear in the manuscript at all.
The speech was titled “Normalcy—Never Again” and before a quarter of a million hearers the following day King began to outline the troublesome history of black men and women in America. But several minutes into this speech he paused and he turned the manuscript over. And then he launched into the words that were closest to his heart: “So I say to you today, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
I am not sure how often the world is changed by a revision. But this one I cannot imagine the world without. The apostle Paul writes of seeing the kingdom of heaven as if through a glass darkly. From a bird’s eye view of this split decision in history, it seems for a moment that the glass was partly cleared. Dr. King’s decision to talk about the dream God had given him is wrought with the vision and wisdom of God. As a fellow Christian, it brings me to ask: How do I learn to live with such a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that I could completely shift gears against the advice of all the experts and before a crowd of 250,000 onlookers? But it also brings me to wonder at the God who is near us in the very making of history, the Father who sees our need, the Spirit who moves us, and the Son who makes all things new.
In the Christian worldview, God is known as the eternal weaver of time and meaning. God is the voice that spoke the world out of chaos and into abundance, the breath that blew the church out of despair into existence, and the one who brings things that never were to life. In the fullness of time, the eternal comes near and we are forever changed. As the apostle recounts, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
Dr. King may have launched that day into an old and tired message, but it was a message somehow made new within a world that desperately needed to hear it. Clarence Jones, one of the men who had helped with the new speech the night before, recalled the transition in King’s speech, and remembered bowing his head in defeat of all the work they had put into preparing a new message. Little did he realize what could become of four familiar words when the Spirit is moving and active. The tired “I have a dream” became the very phrase that came to define the civil rights movement itself, and inspired the people everywhere to look again at the counter-cultural nature of a different kingdom among us
For those of us in the United States, the last few weeks in particular have been a sad and painful reminder that the world is still reeling with the same racism, division, and violence King addressed so many decades ago. Maybe there is hope in leaning toward the Holy Spirit, the one Jesus promised his disciples on the night when things turned violent in his own life. Jesus assured them that he would not leave them as orphans, and though it looked bleak from the view of the Calvary, he kept his promise. The Spirit of God is near, and sometimes we are as sure of it as when the wind moves the trees. Other times the Spirit is seen more clearly in hindsight. But the invitation of Christ is accompanied with the promise of a guide and comforter, the Spirit who makes and is making all things new, moving change into the world, bringing life into deadened hearts, whispering to us that one day our tears will be no more and the old order of things will pass away. God is the keeper of this, the greatest of dreams, and of the dreamers themselves.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.