Last July while vacationing in Washington DC, I woke for an early morning run. The mid-week streets were not yet crammed with commuters, and the memorials on the mall were equally absent of pedestrians and sightseers.
My run wandered by monuments of the past … each standing as present testimonies to national greatness and tragedy. I made a lap around the obelisk to Washington; over and around the tidal basin where Jefferson stood still beneath his immortal words that “all men are created equal”. The four rooms of FDR’s memorial were empty except the sound of rushing water. FDR sat in his chair and watched me go by, his carved countenance seeming to match the mood of the time in which he served.
Empty too were the steps that lead to Lincoln’s great memorial. They were bathed in the gold of a rising sun. I climbed them slowly, selfishly enjoying the solitude and the calm before a mid-summer DC day.
Interestingly, my thoughts didn’t go to the days of Lincoln, nor the year of 1863 when the Great Emancipator called for the freedom of slaves and a renewed resolve to sustain the great American experiment. No, instead, my thoughts were triggered by the words etched into the granite steps midway to Lincoln’s shrine. On the spot where in 1963 Martin Luther King delivered his opus, the “I Have a Dream” speech, the speech’s title is chiseled into the granite as a permanent reminder of a grand moment in which the preacher called for a renewed resolve to carry out liberty and justice for all.
For a moment, sweat dripping from my brow, I was transported back to another time in which a Catalyst for the age in which I live grew up. Martin Luther King’s youth was spent in the oppressive heat of Southern Jim Crow. Raised by his preacher father and challenged by his mother to never think of himself as less than anyone else, the theology of his later social activism, (not to mention his sermons) was crystallized at the very steps of that Lincoln Memorial.
It was Easter Sunday of 1939. At the Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s largest concert venue at the time, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) were holding a concert. Barred from performing due to the color of her skin, Marion Anderson (widely renowned as the nation’s greatest contralto) was relegated to a “lesser” spot, in the “auditorium under the sky” as Harold Ickes called it. She would hold stage on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of both blacks and whites that numbered in the thousands. Offering a mix of operatic classics, she finished her set with a hint of protest by singing “My Country Tis’ of Thee.” Standing in front of a Steinway grand, with the gaze of Lincoln off her shoulder, Anderson offered a subtle demurral. Lifted on the notes of a gifted voice she switched the words “of thee I sing”, to “of thee we sing.”
Had Lincoln been able to hear it, I wonder if he would have smiled.
In the audience that day was a ten year old boy, Martin Luther King Jr, who did hear it and may have grasped right then the power of the words that end the first stanza, “From ev’ry mountainside, Let freedom ring!”
Well, five years later, young Martin King gave one of his first recorded speeches titled “The Negro and the Constitution.” He said, “She (Marion Anderson) sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.”
24 years after that speech, in August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand in the same spot that Miss Anderson did, and belt out on soaring rhetoric a dream that one day America would “let freedom ring from every mountainside.”
But from where does this freedom come? What would give such a young preacher-man from the South, immersed in a cultural context of state-sanctioned racism, the audacity to proclaim such a dream?
The answer is found in the concept of the Imago Dei, or “the image of God.” It was a concept deeply rooted in not only King’s thinking, but in the “American Dream” as well, as King reminded his audience at the start of his oration that August day. It emanates too from Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It’s a understanding that states that every man, woman, child, no matter the race, is “endowed by our Creator with certain, unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Certain privileges — rights — come with being made in the image of God. The Imago Dei.
In a sermon King once preached he said: “You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the “image of God” is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected … this gives him worth. There are no gradations in the image of God, Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard. … One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”
While post-modern sensibilities and some revisionists may recoil from the thought of King’s Christianity or simply dismiss it as a minor irritant to the civic leader’s greater secular impact, there is no escaping the bedrock of Christian theology from which King preached and moved America to action. King’s faith was woven into the fabric of the civil rights movement and is an integral part of what made the “I Have a Dream” address hit home. It resonates, because it connects with the deepest longing of every human being: Justice.
In his dream address, King ascended from the foundation of justice to the pinnacle of brotherhood. Equating the lack of justice to “quicksand” he warned America that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Then, in an echo of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, King quickly followed his admonition with the reminder that the outcome of freedom demands a non-violent approach to justice. “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.” The sunlight of justice falls equally on white and black people. The Imago Dei is in all and justice must not be bought with the coin of hatred and at the expense of brotherhood.
King’s theology stems from the Old Testament prophets. Timothy Keller has written a superb study on the practice of social justice and notes that the Hebrew term for “justice” is “Mishpat”. Used over 200 times in the Old Testament, its basic meaning is to treat people equitably, especially the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the poor. (Zechariah 7) King, stating the obvious that blacks had received a raw deal from the promises of the Declaration and the Constitution, warned America using the words of one of those Old Testament prophets, that “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)
America was a crooked place back then, thirsty for the waters of righteousness. Bent by racism, hatred and injustice, America needed a modern day prophet to challenge Americans to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. The prophet-preacher King quoted from Isaiah to proclaim his own vision for America: “One day, every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isaiah 40) Then came the obvious: If we are not all created in the Imago Dei, should we not judge each other by the content of our character?
Near the end, his voice rising on the winds of inspiration, King proclaimed that “From the mountain of despair would come a stone of hope,” and that one day all of those made in the Image of God, would be able to sing with new meaning “my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring.”
In the audience was Marion Anderson and I’m sure she must have smiled.
Last July on those very steps, in silence and alone, I was connected by understanding and place with both the present and the past. I soaked it in, relishing my moment there on that historic spot. In time, I descended and continued on my run, reflecting on the greats who had passed this way so long ago, people who in words that soared and actions that roared changed the way we live.
Their echoes reverberated in the quiet of the morning, and I couldn’t help but smile