by Gary Selby
Director of the Center for Faith and Learning
Seaver College professor of communication
Author of Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America's Struggle for Civil Rights
When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the immortal words we celebrate this month, much of our country was still, as he put it, "sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression." From the moment that the civil rights movement had begun to gain momentum, African Americans had been met with a backlash obscene in its cruelty and intensity. King himself was repeatedly harassed and received constant death threats and, at several points, his house and those of other movement leaders were damaged or destroyed by bombs. That backlash reached a climax in the Birmingham protest in the spring of 1963, when Bull Connor's police force attacked peaceful demonstrators with high-powered water hoses and snarling police dogs; in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning in October of that same year, which killed four little girls; and then again, two years later, when Alabama State Troopers brutally beat African American protestors as they tried to march across the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma.
In the face of such racism and injustice, King inspired African Americans with the courage to stand together against oppression, and their courage and perseverance changed the nation and the world.
But behind that vision of justice for his own people was a larger vision of reconciliation captured in what he called "the beloved community," where all people would treat each other with love, where even "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." That vision led King to treat even his most vicious enemies with respect and goodwill. Even as he called his followers to stand firmly against the evil of injustice, he insisted that they respond to violence with love, refusing to "satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." Behind all of this was his hopeful conviction that when confronted with such "creative suffering" the nation would repent and change.
Here is that vision in King's own words:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day . . . And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day 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!