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Is Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Dream’ still alive?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Dr. Martin Luther King giving his I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington on 28 August 1963 (Credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

The “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” was held 50 years ago today.  It gathered more than 250,000 people in the National Mall—the largest public demonstration in American history to date.  From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech (audio/video/text).

According to Jon Meacham, writing in the current Time magazine, the speech “lifted King above the tumult of history and made him a figure of history.”  Meacham calls him an American “founding father” in the ranks of Lincoln and Jefferson.  But the dream is not yet reality.  According to Meacham, “The march, he said that day in Washington, was not an end; it was but a beginning.  We live in a world King helped create.  We do not yet live in the world he helped all of us dream of.”

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America still faces a dilemma: do we measure success by changed laws or changed hearts?

Clearly, the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965 have made a difference for African Americans.  According to Meacham’s article, the high school completion gap has closed by 57 points; the number of African Americans in college has tripled; there are five college graduates for every one in 1963; and the percentage of African Americans living in poverty has fallen 23 points.

However, prejudice clearly remains.  The racial unemployment ratio is unchanged since 1963, at two-to-one.  Segregation in America’s cities is still a tragic fact.  And 11:00 Sunday morning remains “the most segregated hour in America,” according to Billy Graham.

The Hebrew prophets Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted 50 years ago resolved our dilemma simply: do what is right and you will become what is right.  Human words cannot change human hearts; racial bigotry, like all other sin, must be forgiven by God’s grace and transformed by his Spirit.  But obedience to his word positions us to experience his blessing.  When we act against prejudice, over time—by God’s help, depending on his Spirit—we become less prejudiced.

Dr. King was right: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”  But love is a “fruit” or work of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  If America would turn to Dr. King’s God, we would see Dr. King’s dream fulfilled—beginning in this life and consummated in the next.