How Martin Luther King, Jr. changed my life

Five years after Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, I heard him speak at a church in Memphis. I had come with my gang to rob ladies' purses. But I left a new man. I was not the first to be transformed by King, and I should not be the last.

AP Photo/File
Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses marchers during his 'I Have a Dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Op-ed contributor Luther Ivory writes: 'Much has been accomplished since the civil rights era in terms of racial equality, but King’s bold vision for America remains important.… All Americans should commit a national examination and discussion of King's speech in its entirety.'

Today, Americans will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s, Jr.'s  “I Have a Dream” speech, which Dr. King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a defining moment in the civil rights movement.

Five years after his famous speech, King was in Memphis to support the sanitation-worker strike. He spoke at a local church. It was the night before he was assassinated. At the time, I was a 15-year-old member of a local gang known as the Bungalow Braves. Several of us “Braves” heard that King was going to be down at Mason Temple that night for a rally speech.

We knew that whenever Dr. King came into town, the place would be standing room only, because he made good copy for the media and he was the closest thing to Jesus any of us knew! So, I slipped out of the back window of my house and, along with some of the Braves, went to the rally.

We were not there for positive purposes. We knew that many of the ladies attending would place their purses in the trunks of their cars for safety. We had a well-oiled theft process, and we were going to steal the money and leave the other contents, since we were “honorable” thieves.

While there, it began to rain torrentially, and the wind blew so hard it was straight-lining. This drove us into the narthex of the church. I remember women stomping their heels on the wooden floor to the songs. I remember the speakers who tried to calm the crowd, to no avail.

King had decided to skip this rally, but the demand for his presence was so intense that he eventually came. I recall how diminutive he looked as he entered to cheers and shouts of “Doc!” and “King!” He spoke extemporaneously, with allusions to Ovid, Shakespeare, William Cullen Bryant, the Bible, the Constitution. We now know this as the Mountaintop Speech.

Dr. King’s words shook me out of my intellectual slumber and challenged me to come to terms with my own identity. I experienced my own personal resurrection moment. I was never the same after that night.

I remember saying to myself that I did not want to be encapsulated in mediocrity any longer. I left the gang. I listened to my guidance counselors about going to college. Over the next decade or so, I earned a PhD, served as a lieutenant in the US Navy, and became an ordained minister and served churches in five Protestant denominations in the pastoral office. Today, I work as a college professor.

After hearing King speak, I also began to read everything I could get my hands on by him, including the I Have a Dream speech. Fifty years later, the speech remains compelling not only for its oratorical brilliance, but for its capacity to capture and articulate a vision of America whose future is better than either its past or present.

King vocalized a simple but powerful metaphor – to dream is to challenge, comfort, and inspire the collective psyche to pursue the agenda of justice. He pushes us to examine the impact of “prophetic dreaming,” and it was the furthest he ever went oratorically in outlining what Americans must risk and how we must serve the vision of an integrated society.

Much has been accomplished since the civil rights era in terms of racial equality, but King’s bold vision for America remains important. We should not listen to selective soundbites of the "Dream" speech on the nightly news and simply move on with our lives.

All Americans should commit themselves instead to a national examination and discussion of King's speech in its entirety. Schools, colleges, businesses, government, churches, synagogues, mosques, and other organizations could devote time to discuss and reflect on sections of the speech, and plan action steps leading to the realization of Dr. King's dream.

I encourage fellow Americans to read King's “The Ethical Demands for Integration” and “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”. These texts will prevent us from truncating King's dream into one of merely racial integration, and compel us to acknowledge that his vision also focused on real sociopolitical and moral issues to be resolved.

The dream speech is a call to emancipatory action by one of the few genuine prophetic dreamers to be produced on America soil. The dream is about eradicating what King referred to as the “triple moral evils” of racism, poverty, and violence.

I was not the first to be transformed by Dr. King, and I should not be the last. Many more lives can be changed forever if Americans get serious about the eradication of these evils.

Luther Ivory is an associate professor of religious studies and director of African American studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

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