Augustine & King


You received it, not as the word of man, but as it truly is, the word of God. (I Thessalonians 2:13)

Do you think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., intentonally gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on St. Augustine’s feast day? Maybe he did. The following year, Dr. King went to St. Augustine, Florida, to conduct a non-violent civil-rights campaign.

Augustine of Hippo repented of his pagan way of life and dedicated his prodigious mental energies to ministering the liberating Word of God. I can’t hold myself out as an expert on either St. Augustine or Dr. King. But certainly they shared many things–in addition to African blood.

March on Washington August 28By leading the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King sought, as a Christian leader, to reconcile black and white America.

St. Augustine also dedicated the better part of his life to reconciling divided Christian peoples. He led the church in North Africa through the Donatist controversy, when a whole generation of baptized Christians disagreed violently with each other over who had the authority to confer the sacraments.

And both St. Augustine and Dr. King emphasized the love of God in their work of trying to unite people. Left to our own devices, we fall, we divide, we invent pretexts for hating each other. But God shares His love with us in Christ. Christ can make us loving and decent, respectful and united in the truth.

St. Augustine and Dr. King taught the gentle, forgiving love of God. The love of the Sermon on the Mount. The love Christ taught us. The love that meets evil not wth violence, but with meekness.

Dr. King himself got a kick out of the story about a black man who had been insulted by a bus driver. “I got two pieces of bad news for you,” the man said to the driver, “First, I ain’t no boy. And second, I ain’t one of them nonviolent Martin-Luther-King Negroes.”

Dr. King had friends and benefactors in New York City. Once he was riding an elevator in a skyscraper with a group of white lawyer friends. A woman got on, and, assuming that Dr. King was the elevator man, she told him what floor she wanted. He courteously pressed the button for her without saying a word. After she got off, Dr. King and his friends had a good laugh over the elevator boy who was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.

The word of love and solidarity is not the word of man. It is not the word of St. Augustine or Martin Luther King. It is the word of God. Blessed are we if we receive it as such.

As Dr. King put it, quoting the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, fifty years ago:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of God shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith I go back to the South with. 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 the beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Albany vs. Birmingham, then Washington

March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph's march
March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph’s march

Martin Luther King, Jr., declared “I have a dream today” on August 28, 1963, the 1,533rd anniversary of St. Augustine’s death. Fifty years ago.

I think I was eight or nine when I realized that black people made my dad nervous, but not me. After all, I had playground pencil fights with black boys from the other side of Rock Creek Park on a daily basis. Between first and eighth grade, I never had a homeroom teacher who wasn’t black. Like every child, I accidentally called my teacher “mom” a time or two. When I did, she was always black.

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever credit there is for this goes to my dad. He directed his life in such a way that I could grow up without feeling nervous. We did not have a house in a white suburb. My brother and I rode Metrobuses and sat down next to black people well before we knew that only a decade separated us from the regime of legal segregation in the South.

let-trumpet-sound-life-martin-luther-king-jr-stephen-oates-paperback-cover-artThe hallway in school had Dr. King’s words emblazoned on the wall (ostensibly to celebrate Black History Month, which always lasted for the whole year in the D.C. public schools): “I have a dream!”

So: We must indeed pause with reverence to remember the day when Dr. King actually spoke those words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at the end of the summer of 1963.

An irony: The suite at the Willard Hotel where Dr. King spent the night after he delivered his speech? Bugged. By the police. Like our phones and e-mail during the Obama administration.

Better, though, to focus on 1963. And the tale of two police chiefs.

When Dr. King and–more importantly, really–A. Philip Randolph visited the White House to meet with President Kennedy and discuss holding the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the President joked: “Bull Connor has done a great deal for civil-rights legislation this year.”

President Kennedy referred to the police chief–and claimant to the mayoralty–of Birmingham, Alabama. (A city which did not exist when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.) Bull Connor ordered fire hoses turned on people kneeling in the streets. He sicked police dogs on peaceful demonstrators. Bull Connor ordered black children carried off to jail in school buses.

Mr. Laurie Pritchett, on the other hand, served as police chief of Albany, Georgia, in 1962. He avoided any use of violence in arresting peaceful demonstrators. He never raised a hand against anyone who had not raised a hand against him. On the day when Chief Pritchett and his wife were to celebrate their anniversary, Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy actually called off the march they had planned, because they believed Chief Pritchett deserved to have the day off. The Albany Campaign of 1962–Dr. King’s first large-scale organized series of protests since the Birmingham bus boycott of ’56–resulted in very little media attention. It produced no real change.

Dr. Martin Luther KingThe Lord, of course, has His plan. And Dr. King never gave up. Things had not worked out as he had hoped in 1962. But in 1963, they did. The world watched, and black Birmingham proved the South wrong about segregation. Dr. King and his followers suffered nobly, and thereby proved that their cause was right.

But, also in the summer of 1963: Malcolm X’s followers egged Dr. King’s car. And Attorney General Robert Kennedy was convinced that one of King’s best friends was a Communist.

To be honest with you, I find Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail quite a bit more interesting than his “I Have a Dream” speech. His letter articulates a thoroughly convincing argument for his actions. On the other hand, his speeches generally present emotional Bible-based poems. Black pulpit oratory leaves this particular white boy (and student of St. Thomas Aquinas) pretty cold.

That said, both Dr. King’s speeches and his writings communicate the same fundamental truth: The man had no fear of death, because he loved God and Jesus Christ. Dr. King lived his life, first and foremost, as a churchman. The crescendo of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial focused on one word. Faith. We have faith in the promises of God, communicated in the Scriptures. The Civil Rights Movement, draped as it was in the trappings of a fashionable Gandhi-ism that would make it acceptable to the editors of the New York Times, proceeded, in fact, from the Holy Scriptures.

Probably won’t hear that at any of the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial next Wednesday. As I have tried to point out before, the prominent black orators of today do not speak from the Bible in the way Dr. King and his confreres did. The official commemorations this week will be as empty as they will be boring. (Fact is, the speaker program at the original March on Washington got boring, and the crowd was thinning out a bit by the time Dr. King finally got his turn to speak.)

The best way to commemorate Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will be to read the same book that he read to prepare it: the Holy Bible.

Chief Laurie Pritchett in Albany GA

The Thing about MLK’s Bible…

MLK preaching in church

He knew what it said.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had received a thoroughgoing education. His education began with the Scriptures, included extensive study of history and philosophy, and ended with the Scriptures. He followed the vocation of a churchman. He lived in church–reading, hearing, contemplating, and trying to explain the Bible.

He knew the contents of the Bible. When he thought, he thought about things that he had read in the Bible. When his prodigious imagination churned, and he envisioned the future and the path toward it, what was churning around in there? In his mind’s eye? All the things that he had read, and re-read, in the Holy Bible.

Below you will find extensive citations from his most famous speeches, by which I try to demonstrate the truth of what I have just asserted. Please read.

Before that, I hope you will forgive me for briefly pointing this out: Today I have read widespread comparisons between Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. I make no moral comparisons between the two. I simply point out this one fact:

When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke, he expressed the contents of the Holy Bible. Simple fact. For good or ill, that’s what he did. And Dr. King himself would be the first to tell you that such was his mission in life. To know and to express the Bible.

MLK Time magazineBarack Obama does not do this. Simple fact. As I said, I make no moral judgment in pointing this out. It’s just a fact. Barack Obama can put his hand on any man’s Bible, as many times as he wants. But when he speaks, the Bible does not speak. Simple fact.

Ergo, the two men, MLK and the President, are not similar. Yes, they are both black. But in this all-important respect (ie., the “Biblicality” of their speech) they are not similar.

Before the quotations, let me add one more thing: Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded enormously in his endeavor. Why?

He was a good-looking, charismatic man, with a voice of stunning clarity and power. He came along at the precise historic moment when television made it possible for everyone to see him and listen to him. And everyone could see how the people who followed his leadership suffered righteously and peaceably, and those who harmed them were violent villains.

All these factors, however, are externals. Martin Luther King never would have succeeded if he were solely a good-looking man who managed to get himself on television. What people saw when they saw him: that’s the heart of the matter. And they saw nonviolence. They saw peacefulness, love. The quiet confidence of genuine righteousness.

And where did this come from? Is the answer not as clear as day? From Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King loved the Scriptures because he loved Jesus Christ. If Martin Luther King is a great man, it is for one, single reason: because he lived as an eminent servant of Jesus Christ.

From “Birth of a New Nation” (Montgomery, Alabama, spring 1957)

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