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60 years since MLK's 'I have a dream speech': Good and bad changes since

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo. | REUTERS/Rowland Scherman/U.S. Information Agency/US National Archives

Is it possible that it has been 60 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently called his fellow Americans to live up to the promises of our founding documents and acknowledge the full citizenship of our fellow black citizens? Incredibly, the answer is, yes. Sixty years is three generations of Americans.

And yet, anyone who heard Dr. King’s incandescent oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial remembers how it electrified the nation. I watched it on television as a 16-year-old boy who had just acknowledged the call to full-time Gospel ministry as a Baptist minister.

For me, someone raised in the segregated South (Houston, Texas), having attended segregated schools, a segregated church, and living in a segregated neighborhood, his sermon to America was a clarion call to commitment and action in support of a cause that was demanded both by our founding documents and, more importantly, by the Gospel proclaimed in the New Testament.

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It is often overlooked by the secular media that the driving force informing and motivating Dr. King’s ministry was the paramount fact that he was first and foremost an ordained Baptist minister and his ministry to America was driven by his commitment to a biblically based belief in the fundamental dignity and equal value of every human life — what he often summarized as “somebodiness.”

To understand Dr. King and his message it is critically important to understand that he was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a divinely called, seminary-trained, and fully ordained Baptist minister and pastor who believed in both the sacredness and the equality of every human soul.

In 1967, in what tragically turned out to be his last book (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?) written before his assassination, he wrote:

“Let us be dissatisfied until men will recognize that out of ONE BLOOD God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘white power’ when nobody will shout ‘black power,’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

Based on these words, one can only imagine how saddened Dr. King would be by the degeneration into the ethnic rivalries and hostilities that plague present-day American society.

I firmly agree with American commentator and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley that if Dr. King were alive today he would be “disappointed that black-white gaps persist in income, employment, incarceration, schooling and other areas. Yet it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be pleased with the gains … in recent elections, black voter registration, and turnout rates have hit record highs and in some cases exceeded white rates. ... Black median incomes still trail those of whites, but as economist Thomas Sowell writes in his new book, Social Justice Fallacies, ‘2020 census data show more than 9 million black Americans with higher incomes than the median incomes of white Americans.’” 

For those of us old enough to have made the journey through the civil rights revolution of the last six decades, the progress between then and now has been extremely encouraging and should inspire America to continue her journey to complete fruition.

Riley had the courage to write that one reason “blacks continue to lag behind whites” is that “many government efforts to help the black underclass have backfired. Welfare-state expansions have increased dependency and subsidized counterproductive behavior. In the early 1960s, two-thirds of black children lived with a mother and a father. By the mid-1990s, it was down to one-third. That would disappoint King as well. Perhaps, unlike a lot of black leaders today, he would be willing to talk about it.” 

I have no doubt that the Rev. King would indeed talk about the breakdown of the black family. Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King, explains that her uncle’s dream is “not something set apart from the American Dream but a vision for all people deeply rooted in the promises that make up America.” 

Dr. King’s dream was rooted in his biblical understanding of the equality of all humanity and the fact that America’s founding documents are based on similar principles: “All men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Dr. King’s vision of an America where people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character is not a vision driven by moral relativism, but by a biblically grounded Judeo-Christian morality.

Frankly, I suspect I speak for many Americans in expressing my grief and disappointment that we, as a nation, have not made more progress toward the realization of Dr. King’s vision. I suspect one major reason for that lack of progress is the fact that too many Americans mistook “desegregation” as a synonym for “integration.” It is not. Desegregation means the demise of formal de jure segregation.

With the passage of the Civil Rights laws we “desegregated” America, but we did not integrate it. As I have pointed out before, Jesus commands Christians to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16).

The salt of the law can change actions, only the light of the Gospel can truly change attitudes. The salt of the law can change behavior, it is only the light of the Gospel that can truly change beliefs. The salt of the law can change habits, but only the light of the Gospel can truly change hearts. The salt of the law can end segregation, but only the light of the Gospel can generate true integration.

The law has done about all it can do in desegregating America. True integration will depend on American Christians of all ethnicities practicing the reconciliation made possible through the life-changing Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:15-20). We must always remember that among the redeemed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Progress toward the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream is inextricably intertwined with the health of the Christian faith in America.

Church membership in America, “as a percentage of the population, is now at a record low — down more than 20 points in the 21st century.” 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to perceive of an America successfully renewing her commitment to Dr. King’s dream as we become less religious. Religious renewal and revival of Dr. King’s dream will rise or fall together.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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