The fact that the most powerful part of his iconic speech came entirely off script is a complete testament to the man he was and his message that is.
The vast legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. can be somewhat daunting to entirely comprehend. Book after book features the highlights of his greatest moments in history and sometimes you can be so overwhelmed that you miss the big idea—but I believe the one that jumps right out at you is what has been missing from your psyche.
A man with this level of integrity cannot be duplicated or defined; he can only fuel your determination to match his destiny. This is what King’s words and actions do, and they are so powerful that you often need to study them in order for them to be fully understood.
For me, it wasn’t until I reached chapter 4 in The Dream: Martin Luther King and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Drew D. Hansen that I rediscovered something that caught my attention as it pertains to our current society and culture. If only we can understand what’s missing, maybe then we can fill in the gaps that this man was trying to plug into when he took the stage and made history.
Let’s explore the vision, the imagination, and the next challenge:
The Dream: Martin Luther King and the Speech that Inspired a Nation, Chapter 4: Prophecy
“In the last seven minutes of King’s speech at the March on Washington, he added something completely fresh to the way that Americans thought about race and civil rights. He gave the nation a vision of what it could look like if all things were made new. Throughout his career, King told audiences that the civil rights movement was the vehicle by which God would redeem America. The freedom movement was at once a great American cause—‘If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong’—and a great religious cause—‘If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong’ (156).
In each refrain, he described the coming victory of the civil rights movement with Biblical language that identified the movement’s triumph with the arrival of the kingdom of God. King had used versions of this material many times before, but August 28, 1963, was the first time a national audience had heard anything like this speech (157).
For nearly every one of the 250,000 people at the march and the millions watching on television, the last seven minutes of King’s speech were like nothing they had ever heard before. When King left his prepared text and began to preach about his dreams for the nation, several of his closest associates realized that something astonishing was happening (164).
Clarence Jones was following along with an advance copy of King’s speech and when he realized King had left his text, he thought, ‘He’s off; he’s on his own now. He’s inspired,’ As King stepped away from the podium, Ralph Abernathy embraced him and told him that the Holy Spirit had taken hold of him during the speech. King himself didn’t quite know what to make of what had happened: The ‘I have a dream’ refrain just came to him, ‘just all of a sudden’” (164).
Those close to King suggested that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. King, himself a Baptist minister, needed little preemptive power to feel the authority from a higher source to credit his influence.
When you look back at these words and the way he went off script, it becomes abundantly clear that this was an act powerfully beyond the scope of understanding in the earthly realm.
His obedience to his inner ear is what I will cherish most from learning about this moment in history, and the result of the boldness of his faith is the path that it created for an entire nation to follow. In my humble opinion, this is exemplary of the greatest leadership we have yet to see in the history of our great country.
“In the year of Birmingham and the murder of Medgar Evers, King somehow persuaded his audience that racial discrimination would one day be no more. This was King’s prophetic gift: In order for America to become a truly integrated nation, Americans first needed to be able to envision what the nation would look like” (164).
This has always been a particular conflict in a society that sometimes seems stuck.
Right now America is in this new stage of paralysis; desperate in need to move forward, or risk going backwards in a way from which it may not be able to recover. What do we do?
I believe we look no further than the prophet King.
“Political argument against segregation was valuable, but it was only a beginning. Imagination, as well as reason, needed to be renewed. By telling the audience about his vision of a nation healed of the sins of racial discrimination, King began the process of bringing that new nation to life—if only, at first, in the minds of his listeners” (164-165).
Imagination needs to be renewed again today. The next challenge occurring in this new century is to recapture the prophetic imagination of Martin Luther King. Like King himself was in the late 1960s, I am highly optimistic that we will get there, but it will take a new vision and a form of imagination that has yet to manifest.
Surprisingly, King’s Christian faith was not only accepted on a world stage, it was actually embraced. I stumble to think about the implications of a similar fate today. We are so individualized in our thinking, could another universal dream like this one possibly exist in today’s society?
In my opinion, the answer is yes—but it will require the same power that King invoked on that one special day. Of course in today’s society we have pastors, priests, rabbis and ministers who have been diligently propelling the message of faith and unification, and it is in our houses of worship where our country’s sense of morality will both ignite and continue to fan the flame of spirituality and the freedoms that come with that heightened personal spiritual development.
However, we as a society must be united again through a common vision that has the enduring power to cross over into secular culture. In 2019 and beyond, this will require both a unique platform as well as a meticulously new imagination to execute.
Much like the conclusion of his most famous speech, I personally feel as though the leadership of this next vision and the imaginative execution of it must be inspired by the Holy Spirit—although I understand that this most likely invokes disdain from skeptics, scoffers and non-believers.
Regardless of the hurdles that come from the spirit of unbelief, I consider this to be an inspiration worth pursuing.
What does it mean to be inspired by the Holy Spirit? As King demonstrated on the day he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, it can be best described as an out of body experience that elevates every individual to a higher plane of understanding about the realm in which they exist, while simultaneously connecting each individual through a common foundation.
This is a plain way of putting it, but the key to understand is that the results of a Holy Spirit led revelation/revolution are going to both elevate and connect the human experience in a way that no one man can construct on his own.
The end is a place where we are sharing a similar understanding. The reason we share this understanding is because it doesn’t belong to any of us. Although connected to our spirit within, our true connection to each other comes from a source outside of and above us. Our longstanding leader Martin Luther King Jr. best demonstrates this through the execution of his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Soulical vs. Spiritual Leadership
Other powerful leaders throughout American history had “soulical” attributes, meaning they led with their intellect, their will and their emotions. Their following was shaped by the cult of their personalities. As a result, their messages were effective in the short-term, but not necessarily long lasting in the way that they developed and resonated with their followers in the long-term.
Martin Luther King Jr., however, had the spiritual leadership that is necessary to obtain an immortal message that cannot and will not be buried with his body. It is the reason why his significance has most effectively resurrected over the decades since he has left us. There is something special about this man, and I believe it is due to the fact that he was entirely connected with his intuition [a direct sensing independent of any outside influence], his conscience [the discerning organ distinguishing right from wrong by a spontaneous direct judgment], and his communion [worshipping God/God’s communication to us] with a higher authority.
As he revealed in the last seven minutes of his most famous and iconic speech, one’s greatest power does not necessarily come from within, but rather it comes when one relinquishes their own authority to allow something greater to overtake it.
While we wait for the next great moment of this new millennium, we have a blueprint of what it will look and feel like thanks to this great man. I challenge everyone to consider the part that they will play in our shared experience as both Americans and world citizens. We must all prepare now, so when this moment shows up we will all be prepared to reap the great benefits of a truly connected society.
Four time All-American, WNBA Champion, Edutainer and Coach