It was one of the biggest speeches of his career, and he knew it.
Martin Luther King Jr. was already widely recognized as the spiritual leader of the American civil rights movement. The podium set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963, would be his biggest pulpit ever.
Multitudes had journeyed to the nation’s capital to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, co-organized by the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The eyes of the nation were on King.
Dr. King had prepared his text carefully, asking for suggestions from trusted advisers. He’d gone through several handwritten manuscript drafts—which was unusual for him because he typically spoke extemporaneously, from only a few jotted notes. Originally his title had been “Normalcy, Never Again”—but by the time he’d finished multiple edits, the papers he clutched in his hand were still not what he wanted them to be.
Surprisingly then, the most famous line from the speech— “I have a dream”—wasn’t written on paper at all. That ringing refrain had been a feature of several speeches he’d delivered in other places—most notably at the Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, nearly a year earlier, and in Detroit two months previously.
The beloved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind Dr. King as he gave his speech. She called to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” He heard her and so he did. He told them about the dream.
He was a dreamer, Dr. King. And then, as now, dreamers make the powers that be— the powers that fear change and losing power— deeply uncomfortable.
But visionary leaders do not fear to dream of a better tomorrow for all God’s children. As a consequence, those who fear change sometimes do desperate things to try to bury the dream—and they do it in a variety of ways. Some do it overtly and violently. So do it implicitly and methodically. Some even do it unconsciously. But the results are often the same—the dream will suffer, wain, and die.
That is, unless the dreamer dreams Godly dreams. Like Dr. King. Like Joseph.
Joseph was a lifelong Godly dreamer. His early dreams foreshadowed a time when his family would bow to him— a dream he was not afraid to share with his 11 brothers. It was a dream that predicted he would not only rule over them one day, but would also save them.
His brothers respond: “Here comes this dreamer. Let us kill him and say a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Joseph’s brothers thought better of those words and end up not killing him, but they do sell him into slavery, and stain his coat with blood so his heartbroken broken parents, Jacob and Rachel, will believe a wild animal killed their son.
We know how the story turns out. Through a series of amazing adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt, in prison. And even there, his dreams portend a future time of both plenty and famine. Eventually, Joseph is released from prison and is elevated to an administrative position in the government where soon he is running the entire country as Pharaoh’s chief of staff. Then in a time of terrible famine, the sons of Jacob come and grovel before this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food so they will not starve (thus fulfilling the very dream they’d found so offensive). Only then does Joseph reveal his true identity. He’s their brother, who has every right to exact a terrible revenge upon them. But that wasn’t part of the Godly dream. Rather the dream included grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, and new life.
Throughout his story, Joseph is consistent—he is a dreamer. And though he has reason, he never complains and never loses sight of the Godly Dream.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s speech, Jim Wallis of Washington, D.C.’s Sojourners magazine makes an observation about the speech. Wallis observed, saying, “Something’s missing from it. It’s the phrase, ‘I have a complaint.’”
Wallis continues: “There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent, will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world — but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.”
We need more dreamers like that today. We don’t need complainers—there are plenty of those already. And we hear it everywhere—our work, kids school functions, the grocery check-out line—usually about something trivial and transitory, but maybe about larger matters: an entire political party, the editorial position of a TV news network or the way our economy continues to squeeze the lower and middle classes.
All of this amounts to a culture of complaint that may feel good and empowering in the moment, but it never lasts.
At a national meeting of college student-services professionals, a distinguished dean of students was talking of things he’d learned on the job. He was remarking on the fact that wherever you go in American higher education there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body— the dining hall food.
The dean shared how, over the years, he had convened numerous university committees to improve the quality of dining-hall food. Those committees polled the student body to find out what they wanted, then made informed improvements. The food got better and better. Yet, over all those years, the dean observed a strange phenomenon: the students still never stopped complaining about the food.
He explained, saying, “I have a theory of why that is. When a group of students comes together from all over the country, from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest any student can raise with any other and it’s sure to get a sympathetic hearing. It’s the subject of how bad the food is in the dining hall. The food doesn’t even have to be bad for students to complain about it because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.”
The Dean makes a powerful point. A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. Anyone who’s ever been to a public hearing—where people from the audience stand up and speak into microphones— knows this. Citizens make strident speeches about everything that’s wrong and needs to be fixed. As they do so, they feel the thrill of people coming together around a common cause. But, alas, it’s false unity. A sense of unity built on complaint has no staying power. At the end of the day, it fails to satisfy and only builds negativity, and—when those complained against grow defensive, as eventually they must—it can even lead to open hostility.
No, we don’t need more complainers today. We need dreamers and visionaries who focus not on how bad things are, but on how good they can be.
Dr. King’s preachment of the phrase, “I have a dream,” has truly gone down in history. The most famous of those improvised lines is this: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
If you have any doubt this was a deeply religious address, a sermon, really— or that the civil rights movement was a deeply Christian movement—then just listen to where Dr. King went, a few lines later: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Words of the prophet Isaiah, quoted by the most significant Christian prophet of our time.
Dr. King continued: “This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
In the waning days of the 20th century, a poll of more than 100 scholars of public addresses ranked Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech the most significant speech of the century. In 2013, Jon Meacham wrote in Time magazine: “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.”
The Church needs more dreamers of the day—not complainers.
The Church needs people of passion and principle who refuse to accept the cynical wisdom of the old French proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Those of us in the Church need to be about the business of dreaming and raising up Godly dreams and Godly dreamers.
We need people who embody and live out the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”—because those who have accomplished such a feat were dreamers, one and all.
In a church, a dozen determined complainers can stir up such contagious unrest that a congregation sinks into a death-spiral.
Just one dreamer, though—if that person is determined, persistent, and unfailingly gracious about sharing the positive vision— can sow seeds of joyous enthusiasm that will transform and remake community life.
We need dreamers and visionaries who can outline concrete ways—small, incremental steps—to achieve worthy goals. That’s what Joseph did. That’s what Dr. King did. And we are still talking about them, and their dreams, today.
So may we seek to be such dreamers.
May we seek out such dreams, wherever they can be found—even among our children.
And may we embrace not the culture of complaint, but the Godly Dream for it will lead us to the good reality of the dream coming true. Amen.