Martin Luther King Jr. as Founding Father

The influence of the "I have a Dream" speech

Martin Luther King Jr. at march on washingtonThe Aug. 26 Time Magazine declared Martin Luther King Jr. another “Founding Father” in an article by John Meacham. The new title was conferred on King in relation to the success of his vision of a new understanding of the American Creed and our collective mission as a nation articulated in his speech at the March on Washington, 1963. 

At first, I was startled by this declaration put in bold type on the cover of the magazine. Then the idea slowly sunk in and accommodated itself to my understanding of what Martin Luther King Jr. has accomplished on that warm day in August 50 years ago. Yes, in that one speech, Martin Luther King Jr. had summed up the ideal of freedom and equality articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and connected that ideal with his prophetic dream of black and white sitting down at table together, playing together and realizing a biblical ideal of brotherhood.

How Martin Luther King accomplished the creation of a new sense of the meaning of the Declaration and the American Creed is explored by several new books including King’s Dream, a book by Eric Sundquist, a UCLA professor of literature. In that book Sundquist analyzes the speech, taking each paragraph of the “I Have a Dream” speech and illustrating what might be the background of thinking behind each section of the speech. He takes into account the influences of other writers on his thought and the experiences King encountered as leader of the civil rights movement earlier in his career. 

One of the most important influences on the speech, especially in its introduction, was the words the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, an original Founding Father. King seemed to regard the ideal of liberty and equality of that founding document as an “American Scripture,” as Pauline Maier calls it. The words and thoughts of that Declaration wove themselves into the thought, feeling and rhetoric of King as a minister and leader.

Sundquist helps our understanding of the speech by detailing the meaning of key terms King uses, such as “dream.” Sometimes “dream” meant our sense of current reality, such as in reference to those who support segregation and ignore the rights of a whole population. They are living in a “dream,” according to King. At other times, the term “dream” was associated with hopes for the future embodied in the statements of the Prophets foreseeing the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Often King quotes from the late prophet Daniel on how a promise of God made through the prophet inspired by a dream sent by God would be realized in the history of Israel. When used in the “I Have a Dream” speech, "dream" should be seen as referring to both a new sense of the meaning of the “American Creed” and the overall divine purpose for America.

At the March on Washington in 1963, King was speaking both as a leader of the massive civil rights political movement and as a priest of the American “civil religion” that sociologists such as Robert Bellah identifies as the religious sense of identity of a nation. Taking King’s use of well-used ideas about the American identity that one finds in the Declaration, one can see the entire strategy of the speech as the effort to shift our understanding of Jefferson’s assertion of the “self-evident truth” that “all men were created equal” to a new register.

In his speech, King is suggesting that the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence was itself more of a promise or dream or a continuing task rather than something already accomplished. That Jeffersonian political ideal of equality was not yet realized in American life was apparent at the height of the conflicts of the civil rights movement in the 1960s -- or today for that matter.

After redefining the founding document of the Declaration, King then works to connect that ideal of equality and freedom with what he calls the “American creed” that is what Sundquist calls a belief in the special mission of America. Often Americans have expressed this thinking that we were a chosen people. We were also a people with a purpose, that is, the purpose of realizing or freedom expressed in the founding documents. In a very skillful way, Martin Luther King Jr. on that bright day plays on that heritage of "civil religion" we have mentioned and sought to redefine the American creed or ideal in those terms.

Our American creed, according to King, was not just the political realization of the ideals of the Declaration in our institutions of government, but a call to a continual struggle for justice that included the realization of the rights of groups previously excluded from the circle of civic culture. He showed through his eloquence how the statement of equality and liberty made at the beginning of the Republic was actually a prophecy, a dream that calls us forth to further efforts.

In a few words Martin Luther King wove together the American sense of our chosen status as carriers of the political ideal of equality and freedom with the biblical, prophetic dream of unity and brotherhood and sisterhood to establish a new sense of citizenship that lives with us today. 

-- Paul Sweeney