Today (August 28, 2023) is 60th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. 2023 being this 60th year was why this year’s 4 Corners Festival back in February had the title Dreams…Visions For Belfast.
The day takes me back to the 50th Anniversary in 2013 when we were privileged to have political activist, author and speaker Jim Wallis in Fitzroy.
It was hearing that speech on August 23rd 1963, as a fourteen year old boy living in a very white world, that changed Jim’s life. Were it not for that speech Jim might not have been inspiring us to put Jesus on the streets, living the transforming command of Scripture to love our neighbour and giving us the spiritual stamina to decide for hope when all seems hopeless.
Jim used the speech very poignantly. He began by suggesting that it was the anniversary of King’s “I have a complaint” speech! Of course it wasn’t and the difference between a “compliant” and a “dream” is profound. There are many things we can complain about and protest against.
It is easy to complain but it is in dreaming that people bring about social change. Dreaming is about imagining how change looks. The Bible has told us this a long, long time ago; “your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
After Jim spoke we opened the meeting to the floor and John Brewer, then the Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen’s University, made us aware that at the very same time as we were listening to Jim there was a meeting at Stormont to celebrate the "I Have A Dream" speech.
John shared how that seemed a little incongruous with the lack of imagination that we have heard publicly from our politicians over recent years. John then went on to say how refreshing it was to be listening to the hopefulness of Jim’s talk.
Early the next day I was with Jim Wallis for a Breakfast meeting with church, community and political leaders, hosted by the late, and dearly missed, Glenn Jordan at Skainos in East Belfast. I got chatting to the then Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle who had been one of the instigators of that Stormont meeting that John Brewer had referred to.
Chris gave me an alternative perspective. He felt strongly that it was a very appropriate time to gather our political leaders to ponder on King’s speech. He shared some of, what he felt were, the similarities between King’s gathering in Washington and our own current impasse.
So, I left the breakfast thinking that, though it might have been almost a hypocrisy for our leaders to be remembering such a historical moment of social progress and reconciliation at a time when they were failing to lead us in that way, that maybe a meditation on that speech at this time could only be useful; almost hopeful!
Jim Wallis’s message to us, over three different events in Belfast in 2013, was that we the ordinary people need to give a space and the mandate to our politicians for change.
President JF Kennedy was not a supporter of King’s Washington gathering. The political leaders in Washington felt that it would need some time to bring the country to the place that King was dreaming of.
However, what the Washington gathering of 250,000 people did was to give the politicians the encouragement to move faster.
Jim was inspiring those of us meeting in Fitzroy to be a ground swell of change that would give the necessary collateral to those who met at Stormont to make our future together better! Where does that begin. Well, moving from “I have a complaint” to “I have a dream” is where it starts.
As I have written and spoken, in the decade between, I don’t believe that the peace and prosperity that Jeremiah asked us to pray for will drip down the hill from Stormont. It will have to flow up. It won’t be in our complaints that we move the politicians but by our dreams. This 60th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech will remind us of that today.