BRAVO to Dr. Eric Sundquist and Yale University Press for the superb new book, “King’s Dream,” an exploration of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech — and, through that speech, an exploration of the spiritual power and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We say, “Bravo!” here at ReadTheSpirit! (You can click below, if you want, to get a copy via Amazon.)
We are not alone. Dr. Sudquist’s book earned high-and-lengthy praise from the New York Times on Sunday for unlocking fresh insights into America’s most famous speech.
Having covered religion in America for decades, I was aware that King’s famous “dream” passage in the speech was a departure from his prepared text that day. Anthony Lewis, the Times reviewer who wrote passionately about King and Sundquist’s book on Sunday, said that reading this book was the first time he discovered King’s departure from his prepared text.
Whether you knew this key detail or not — spend a moment pondering the powerful lessons in that decision to tear up the planned text that day in Washington, D.C.
In that instant, Dr. King threw out his prepared speech and said something — else.
Why is this so important to think about all these years later?
Well, in my decades of writing about religion, I’ve received a river of prayers, liturgies and sermons that look like they were planned to death. Every ounce of inspiration sometimes is studiously wrung of the supremely planned lines delivered in our houses of worship. Some great occasions wind up hallowed in prayers and liturgies that read more like they were drafted by a committee than prayers that truly are allowed to soar from inspired hearts and minds.
King’s famous “dream” passage really was a prayer that he extemporized, woven together from many of his own past orations. But, to African-American churchgoers, this was how a sermon should end — in a great flight of extemporized phrases. What King was doing that day in D.C. was daring to swing open the doors and windows of black preaching to white America. For those with ears to hear — and minds and hearts to receive — King opened mainstream America to the black-church tradition of what praying and preaching can be all about at its best.
Want to see the enduring power of this kind of spiritual cross-over in action?
READ THE INAUGURAL PRAYER that ReadTheSpirit commissioned for our readers to share this week. It was written by the Rev. Marsha Woolley, a United Methodist pastor who is well known in her denomination for her writing and liturgical work — but who also ranks among thousands of pastors and preachers nationwide whose work owes a debt to King’s inspiration.
HERE’S THE OTHER FASCINATING REVELATION in Dr. Sundquist’s book about the speech. He lets us know that even the great King could write a clunker for a big occasion. Here is what King intended to say to close out his address to the vast crowd that day.
No glowing tapestry of historic-American and timeless-global themes that still bring eyes to tears and feet to motion. This was his planned conclusion that day:
“And so today, let us go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction. Let us go back with all the strength we can muster to get strong civil rights legislation in this session of Congress. Let us go down from this place to ascend other peaks of purpose. Let us descend from this mountaintop to climb other hills of hope.”
Stunning in its banality, hunh? Those were the words written on Dr. King’s paper that day, Dr. Sundquist tells us. Thank God Almighty that Dr. King threw out the plan at a moment’s notice. And, Thank God Almighty that Dr. King’s heart and mind functioned on a far higher level than what he sometimes laid down on his own planning papers.
ALSO TODAY, read a special story about the personal impact of King’s life and work — as told through “one woman’s story.” And, enjoy the Interfaith Heroes Month tribute to King, published today to honor his holiday.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)