King's Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" Speech (Icons of America)
Eric J. Sundquist
Yale University Press, 2009
320 pp., $40.00
Amos N. Jones
"Think with Me Today"
In light of the iconic rise of President Barack Obama, a contemporary observer can hardly avoid drawing parallels between "I Have a Dream" and the then-U.S. Senator's famous March 18, 2008, race-relations speech at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, "A More Perfect Union." Both speeches included critiques of longstanding racial injustice and official inaction caused by what many regard as America's original sin, slavery. Both gave legitimacy to particular African American grievances. Both were offered at a time of national division and subsequent yearning for leadership toward unity. Both were delivered to the nation by men beloved within the black community. Both appealed to the whole of the American family. Current events in the United States are bound to keep Sundquist's readers ever mindful of the parallels between the visions of these two historical figures whose ascendancies are separated by fifty years.
Given Americans' warm bipartisan response to Obama's address, the realist must applaud with them. The fact that Americans of all ideologies enthusiastically embraced the words of a man both critical and supportive of both blacks and whites while also criticizing the status quo in a time of political brokenness showed that the country is more open-minded than it used to be. Once the applause subsides, however, the realist is further obliged to recognize that, as President Obama himself has insisted, we have not yet seen the fulfillment of King's dream. The country surely will confront more racially suspect police shootings, more Jena Six situations, and still more African American men dropping out of high schools and becoming trapped in the prison-industrial complex—the kinds of disparities King despised.
Though Sundquist does not venture far into the community that empowered King to take such liberties, he rightly implies that "I Have a Dream" was no extraordinary offering for a preacher of King's ability. King, if nothing else, was a black Baptist pastor, and the most distinguished black Baptist churches have always produced extraordinary men by encouraging creativity and promoting leaders who accomplish great things. At Morehouse College, at Crozer Theological Seminary, in his PhD program at Boston University, and in the early years of his ministry, King worked hard on both his pulpit style and on the content of his sermons. In fact, Sundquist reports, "his sermons included little of the straining, moaning, and whooping that constituted the performance essence of some African American preaching."
The initial incubator for his ministerial development was, of course, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, an élite black congregation whose principal place of worship was a handsome edifice erected on a fashionable Montgomery thoroughfare during the heady days of black Reconstruction. In this "class church" founded by an erudite faction intentionally segregating itself from the "mass church" First Baptist, professional black people called senior ministers offering academic distinction and leadership potential. Dexter approached the seminarian when he was only 26, and, upon accepting the pulpit after the dismissal of the legendary Rev. Vernon Johns (a doctor of theology from Oberlin), King treated his charge to thoughtful and challenging messages that called them to all forms of service.
In a typical sermon, King would ascend the pulpit in a conservative black robe and invite the congregation "to think with me today" as he argued points under titles such as "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" and "Paul's Letter to American Christians." Some of his sermons can be heard on recordings from those days. Listening in on a representative Sunday at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, one could hear a pin drop as King addressed his members in perfect diction and with deliberative restraint before concluding in a profound silence. A relevant, pre-selected hymn of invitation would mark the end of King's proclamation, King would pronounce the benediction, and the congregation could visit with their preacher at the sanctuary doors or enjoy a great classical work performed by the organist. Out of this intentionally contemplative environment came many of the ideas that would make their way into King's later sermons and addresses —a body of orations that compelled hearers to agitate for transformative change, starting with those patient Dexter deacons and trustees who supported the bus boycott and reaffirmed their young pastor's leadership even after the parsonage was bombed in response to the church's activist successes.