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The Symphony of Protest: MLK’s I Have a Dream

How did Dr. King's nonviolent approach shape America's racial discourse? Through scripture and history, King's "Dream" speech masterfully balanced moral integrity with a call for change.

“I have a dream”no words are more widely recognized or more often referenced when confronting injustice than those delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sixty years ago today, August 28th, at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Facing the sweltering heat of persecution and state-sanctioned racism, Dr. King and over 200,000 protesters marched on Washington, demanding racial equality before the law. 

His transformative words, however, lose their potency when quoted without recalling Dr. King’s determination to enact long-overdue change without engaging in violence. Over half a century later, the lesson is clear: his peaceful means of protest held more persuasive power to change hearts and minds than the compulsion of violent acts or contention could have ever accomplished.

Latter-day Saints are familiar with the scriptural directives and historical examples that point to this truth. It is often a test of Christian character to work patiently for change within an evidently unjust system.

The determining struggle of Dr. King’s work, individually and between members of his movement, was balancing the need to thrust uncomfortably the hypocrisy of American racism into the public eye but to do so within the moral structure.

His peaceful means of protest held more persuasive power.

Dr. King’s “Dream” speech not only struck this balance but articulated the emotional and moral cornerstone of his movement. Decades later, his speech can still bring one to tears and is the inspiration of other nonviolent protest movements around the world. A careful review of his speech provides a guide to individuals and groups on how to emulate his peaceful demand for change.

First, Dr. King invokes a fraternity of man image. His oratory is intentionally infused with quotations from the Bible that place the suffering of African Americans within the historical background of scripture. This provides both a sense of unity and hope for black listeners and a sense of brotherly suffering for white listeners, a powerful “their suffering” is “our suffering” effect. 

Today this type of persuasive argument is rare in public conversations. Too often, spokespersons lash out to publicly label supposed perpetrators of pain, causing an immediate “us” versus “them” dynamic where society has to decide which side they are on. 

President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Russel M. Nelson’s recent comment on the ineffectiveness of anger is clear: “Anger never persuades. Hostility builds no one. Contention never leads to inspired solutions.” Instead, serious solution-seekers should follow Dr. King in appealing to the better angels of our nature, as President Abraham Lincoln demonstrated before the American Civil War.

Next, Dr. King’s “Dream” speech places his petition for redress within the historical framework of the country. Similar to how Lincoln reapplied the founder’s vision to his current conflict around the Civil War, Dr. King does the same with references to the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. 

These rhetorical devices act as figurative object lessons underlining his belief that his civil rights dream aligns with the founders’ dream of a nation where “all men are created equal.” Dr. King utilizes this line of logic repeatedly, referring to the prosperous conditions the founders enabled through the Constitution and saying he was merely there to “cash the check” given to him as a citizen of the United States.

Lastly, Dr. King appeals to the conduct of Heaven to be society’s guide. Alluding to Galatians 3:28, he expresses hope for the day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” His argument strikes to the core of the Christian commandment to love all of God’s children as He loves us. How can a Christian, Dr. King’s argument rhetorically asks, withhold his approval from another whom God loves? The logic also appears to parallel the Lord’s censure of the Apostle Peter: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

Dr. King’s admonition to love others as Christ commands was not empty rhetoric. His lyrical reading of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’” in the speech most likely invoked personal reflections for him. Years earlier, while he was conducting the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, a stick of dynamite blew up his front porch endangering his family. The local paper quoted him calming the gathering crowd bent on revenge by saying, “I want you to love our enemies.” Afterward, a spontaneous singing of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’” commenced—a favorite of the civil rights movement that stressed their belief in participating in the U.S. Constitution’s quest to craft “a more perfect union.”

The Latter-day Saint observer can recall the words revealed to Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants section 121 after he pleaded with the Lord to right the wrongs committed against him and his followers. The Lord tells Joseph to wait patiently and later instructs him that our interaction with others, especially those we disagree with, should be “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” And that we should show an “increase of love toward him” we may disagree with so, “he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”

Both examples show that peacemakers’ persuasion techniques may not move others to respond quickly, but love alone has the capacity for permanent growth and change. Its power may be best illustrated by this ancient couplet: “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” The potency of a gentle antagonist willing to patiently work to persuade is clearly superior to the all-to-common temptation to compel each other.

If the best test of character is how a man treats those who can do nothing for him, what then best measures the character of a nation? 

The founders’ careful structure of the Constitution and establishment of federalism appears to answer: that it is best measured by how a nation treats any given minority. Additionally, Dr. King has demonstrated that a society’s character is best measured by how it protests, argues, and attempts to persuade its fellow citizens.

Love alone has the capacity for permanent growth.

Although slow and painful, Dr. King’s peaceful efforts were successful in persuading Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting segregation and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He rightfully received the Nobel Peace Prize and continued to fend off calls for violence in his movement.

If not for Dr. King, the last sixty years may sadly have been very different. Had he or others partaken of the common vice of contention and violence, generations of Americans, white and black, might today have hardened hearts full of bitterness and vengeance. Contention begets contention, and it could still be going on today. All would still be wearing the shackles of hatred toward their neighbor.

The last lines of Dr. King’s speech were meant to help us imagine what could be: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

To me, these lyrics, taken from a well-known African-American folk song of the time, sing to all Americans. 

Free from segregation.

Free from hatred that poisons the soul.

Free from contention.

Free to enjoy communion with our neighbors.

About the author

Joshua Lee

Joshua Lee has served in the White House, NASA, on multiple campaigns, and in nearly all levels of government.
On Key

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