“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. I have a dream …”(Martin Luther King Jr, 1963)
In 1963, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the “March on Washington,” a speech that still holds so much weight today as we look back and reflect on all the changes within our country. Many would say “yes” and “amen” to those words, a nation free from the strongholds of racism and racial prejudices seems like a beautiful nation. Indeed, it almost seems to be “One Nation Under God.”
On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act, which became one of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation. This legislation gave permission for federal prosecution of anyone who attempted to prevent someone from voting. And yet, even with the law in place, blacks still experienced ongoing racial prejudice and outright hatred amidst their daily lives. This eventually led to the “March on Washington” that took place in 1963 where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Fast forward to August 6, 1965. With racial tension still extremely high, president Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act which took things a step further. This act outlawed all voter illiteracy tests and provided federal examiners in certain voter jurisdictions.
On paper, it seemed as though the country was taking great strides towards equality, yet April 4, 1968 proved to tell a different tale. A day after speaking at a strike in Memphis, the “apostle of nonviolence” was shot and killed on the balcony of his motel. Shock and distress swept the nation and riots began to break out everywhere.
During his lifetime, Dr. King proclaimed a consistent and yet resounding message:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” (Martin Luther KIng Jr, Strength to Love, pg. 47)
King understand something about the nature of man that I believe cuts to the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ; That is, love cannot be enforced. No amount of laws or legislation can eliminate hate, for hate dwells where no man can see, that is the heart. The fight for equality will not be won with gunshots and fistfights, it will be won when the love of God rules our hearts to where we can see each other in imago dei, “the image of God.” In other words, abiding by the “law” does nothing to change the condition of one’s heart, only an encounter with calvery can do such a thing.
In his book “Strength to Love” King writes, “Man-made laws assure justice, but a higher law produces love. No code of conduct ever persuaded a father to love his children or a husband to show affection to his wife. The law court may force him to provide bread for the family, but it cannot make him provide the bread of love. A good father is obedient to the unenforceable. The good Samaritan represents the conscience of mankind because he was also obedient to that which could not be enforced. No law in the world could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism.” (pg. 29)
What we see throughout the civil rights movement was love in action, we see light seeking to expel the darkness. King’s vision was deeper than some humanitarian effort or moral crusade, for it was rooted in the divine. What he saw was intrinsic value in every human life based on the reality that we are all made in the image of God. He saw Jesus’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-11 as more than simply an expression of adoration but as a petition. He was a man transformed by love and in return, his made it is mission to extend that love, no human law can produce such an endeavor.
King, Martin Luther, and Coretta Scott King. Strength to Love. Fortress, 2010.
HISTORY. (2019). Civil Rights Movement Timeline. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement/civil-rights-movement-timeline [Accessed 13 Mar. 2019].