I Have a Dream
Who Inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.?

John Stonestreet
August 28, 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Before him, glittering in the August sunlight, was the long, narrow reflecting pool. Behind the pool rose the Washington Monument and some 250,000 people surrounded the pool eager to hear the opening phrases of what would become known as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Today, a granite memorial to King stands near the Tidal Basin, not far from where the civil rights icon gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. But in the days approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the speech that changed America, sculptor Lei Yixin was engaged in less lofty work: He was sandblasting words off the King memorial that have caused controversy: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

The words - paraphrased from a sermon King had given in Atlanta - made the civil rights leader "look like an arrogant twit," snorted poet Maya Angelou.

At least one observer thinks King himself would consider the controversy a tempest in a teapot. In a guest column in USA Today, John Murray, headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Maryland, and one of our commissioned Centurions, says that were King alive today, he would be less concerned about being called a drum major than he would be by the memorial's omission of any reference to God.

Murray has a point. King was a Baptist minister, and yet, of the fourteen quotes on his memorial, "not one mentioned the Inspirer of his faith and courage to challenge the nation's racial injustice of his generation," Murray notes. And he adds, "Can you imagine a Lincoln Memorial without such references as, 'With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right'?"

This is no minor point for Murray. He tells the story of one of his mentors, Chuck Johnston, who was a teacher in a segregated Atlanta school and attended the King speech in 1963 - not to hear King, but to listen to singers Peter, Paul and Mary. But when Johnston got home, it was King's words that were ringing in his ears: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

Murray writes, "This proposition stirred the heart of the Georgia native," who was "the great-grandson of a former Mississippi slave owner" and "worked hard to bring about racial reconciliation in the schools he led." Johnston eventually became executive director of the Atlanta Youth Academy, where he "shepherded the graduation of nine eighth-grade classes by his retirement in 2012." Not a single student dropped out of high school, and many went on to attend college, Murray writes.

"Instead of putting God Almighty to the side," as the memorial to King does, "Chuck Johnston placed him at the center."

Now that the "drum major" quote has been blasted off, Murray recommends replacing it with a line from the "I Have a Dream" speech - one that affected not only Chuck Johnston, but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of others: "I have a dream...when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

If you have children who are learning about the "I Have a Dream" speech today, make sure they understand what motivated Martin Luther King, Jr. It was his faith in the God who authored justice. Because of this, as King reminded us fifty years ago today, when it comes to civil rights, we should not be satisfied with America's progress until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."