Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is steeped in American patriotism, the American Founders, and the Judeo-Christian worldview. Today marks the 50th anniversary of his speech, and King’s remarks are receiving considerable attention. As I mentioned in a past commentary, King made no reference to contemporaries except for passing references to his children and Alabama’s governor. He homed in on the significance of the American Founding and the Emancipation Proclamation while lamenting that there was a check marked with “insufficient funds” for many citizens because of segregation and racial injustice. The Scripture and religious tradition isn’t overtly mentioned until halfway through when King quotes Amos 5:24.
When you read the text of his remarks, you realize King is not offering up new ideas or a political revolution but positing his argument in America’s past and the justice and biblical deliverance that shaped the Western tradition, but specifically America. By borrowing from these ancient truths, King wasn’t just appealing to black America but you could easily argue more specifically to white America. He was using the language and tradition that they were most familiar with. He borrowed from the founders, the American tradition, and its sources. The biblical language he used was one of not just liberation or the Exodus, popular in black churches, but also words that spoke of redemption, an even more familiar theme among America’s white Protestants. Even the “let freedom ring” cadences are an indirect reference to the Liberty Bell, which Americans knew well.
While later in his career and ministry, King would go on to encourage more and more federal action, some needed and some not, the “I Have a Dream” speech is essentially conservative in its roots. And of course without the American tradition of liberty, justice, and the rule of law, the speech would not have been possible and would have rung hollow. Even King’s tactic of Christian appeal through non-violence wouldn’t have been effective against a pagan or secularized culture.
In his speech, King was effective because he appealed to America’s strengths, which were America’s founding, the rule of law, and the strong role of religion and faith throughout the country. These are all things we as a country are moving away from today, and it’s a detriment to not just the appeal King made in his 1963 address, but almost all of the aspects of virtue and liberty in our society. I suspect that fact will be neglected or missed entirely by most of today’s commentators on King’s speech.