As we prepare to celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I believe it is time that we have an honest conversation on how Americans in general and Black folk specifically need to take a break from the I Have a Dream speech. This is not a new suggestion to be sure, as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson offered this idea in his 2006 book, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., where he suggests a 10-year moratorium from listening to or reading the I Have A Dream speech. Dyson puts forth this idea of a moratorium due to the rampant misuse and misapplication of the speech by the very forces that scorned and ultimately murdered Dr. King. Now some18 years after Dyson first offered this unique suggestion, I believe the time is now right for us to take seriously his proposal. I am convinced that if we are to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth that Jesus spoke and taught about as well as the Beloved Community Dr. King labored and gave his life to create, we must awaken from the dream, and we can only do this by taking a break from the I Have a Dream speech.
First, we must realize the I Have Dream Speech is not the end goal but the first step. When Dr. King spoke on his vision for America at the March on Washington in August 1963, it was an invitation to all to imagine a world without systems of domination and exclusion such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Using amazing imagery, Dr. King brilliantly lays out the impact of oppression on this country and what the end results of doing justice would have on society. However, he never names specifically how to solve these problems. As a master teacher, Dr. King is leaving it up to us to image the ways in which we can achieve the goals he dreamt about. The ideas spoken in Washington 1963 are intended to trigger our divine imagination and lead us to do something about the divisions that constituently plague us even now. Dr. King is offering an invitation to get up to make this nation live up to the lofty ideals found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Secondly, to make that world a reality, we must do the hard work of dismantling systems of oppression and holding those who participate in maintaining them accountable. We cannot do these things if we stay dreaming. By not pushing past the dream and into action, we give way for what noted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” In simplest terms, cheap grace suggests we can gain forgiveness without repentance and absolution without personal confession. Those who keep lifting the dream speech often seek to operate in cheap grace because it costs nothing to dream or hope for a better tomorrow. Dr. King highlights this fact in a 1967 interview with NBC where he would state that the old optimism of the civil rights movement was a little superficial and needed to be tempered with a solid realism. Later in that same year, King would astutely point out the gains of the civil rights movement didn’t cost a lot in terms of soul transformation and money and that if America was to be saved, it would have to awaken from the malaise that turned his dream into a nightmare. So, it was for King then, so it is for us now. Therefore, it is critical that we begin to operate in what Bonhoeffer refers to as costly grace. Costly grace requires us to not only follow Christ, but give up everything, including our lives, to help bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. In a world where people can write opt-eds about stringing up (a nomenclature for lynching) students whom they (and by extension others) deem problematic and it be published, it is critical we wake up and become serious about doing justice work. We can no longer afford to sit around dreaming of a better tomorrow, allowing those who would use power and privilege to harm others unlimited cheap grace. Rather it is high time that we who believe in freedom operate in costly grace to transform this nation.
The third and perhaps most tragic reason is the I Have a Dream speech has, in the words of Jesus, lost its salt and has been trampled underfoot. It is not without a great sense of irony that this speech is used as a clarion call by right of center forces (this includes Black conservatives) whenever they wish to act in a manner that harms Black and other people of color. Actions such as eliminating affirmative action, banning textbooks, creating hysteria around critical race theory, rejecting DEI programs, and recently launching a smear campaign against a Black woman when she served as the President of an Ivy League institution. They use the I Have a Dream speech, in particular the part about the context of one’s character over the color of their skin, to justify these egregious actions that damage lives and communities. Dr. King’s beautiful treatise has become a tool of harm and for that reason alone, it needs to be retired for a season until we properly learn appreciate what it really meant and not as weapon against the least of these. Once that lesson is learned, we can once again share the majesty and beauty of Dr. King’s Dream.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I Have a Dream is one of the greatest speeches ever given. My suggestions to give it rest is not an indictment against Dr. King nor what he hoped the world would become. My position comes from how we use it to do nothing at best and harm at worst. It comes from the fact that it has made one of the most brilliant and complex theologians of our time into a one-dimensional character. Yet something good can come from this and perhaps that is the greatest possibility in this moment. By putting down the Dream speech, we now can pick up the other works and thoughts from Dr. King that not only invite us to image a better world but instruct us on how to create that world. Consider if you will that we can finally understand the measure of a man, who articulated why we can’t wait, encouraged us to determine where do we go from here, and helped us gain the strength to love even while sitting in a Birmingham jail. And if that last sentence made no sense or went over your head, you just proved my point.
Enjoy your holiday and remember not to fall for any “day of service” rhetoric as that is cheap labor, cheap grace and empty symbolism.