“Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
Mahalia Jackson’s spontaneous plea is said to have moved Martin Luther King Jr. to abandon his script for his address to the sea of people at the Lincoln Memorial that iconic day in the summer of 1963 and to pour out his heartfelt hopes in a soliloquy that gave its popular name to the speech that raised a nation’s consciousness to both the negative and the positive faces of racism’s power to shape a nation’s history and its aspirations. Some version of the words may have been spoken before, perhaps at a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But I don’t want to talk of them today as a “sermon.” The message from Dr. King’s heart that day, like all the dreams that have power to move us, is far more inspiration than indoctrination. The universal language of dreams is a language of daring. It calls us to do what we never believed we could achieve, or should not even risk pursuing, for fear of failure. So today’s reverent remembering of Dr. King needs also to be an homage to all dreamers.
There are so many. The young Joseph whose dreams rescued him from bitterness. Sold into slavery, he won the day by winning the confidence of a pharaoh, saved his people from starvation, and when reunited with the brothers who betrayed him, he chose only to think and to talk about how bad things lose their power when viewed through the prism of the unexpected outcome they generate. That Joseph shared the name with a dreamer who took a dream seriously and thereby rescued his beloved and her son, even at the cost of making their little family into refugees. The rich and powerful sages who were inspired to come to pay honor to the boy, ignored a crafty king’s ulterior motives and, because of a dream, refused to play into his murderous manipulations.
The power of Dr. King’s hymn to hope and to the power of the dreamer seems to have wafted to the Southern Hemisphere and taken root in the mind of a young Jesuit seminarian in Argentina who named the Nobel Peace Prize winning dreamer as one of his heroes when, more than 50 years later, he was invited to address the Congress of the United States where he cautioned that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
And last week in the same chamber, the echo lingered on. Just days before the national holiday, a president concluded his call to embrace change with the hope that the voices that would call forth the best in his fellow Americans would be “voices Dr. King believed would have the final word?—?voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
In the tradition of those fortunate ones who get to make sense of their experiences because of the dreams of others, I realized in the writing of these words that the “delay” of the interment of a good man because cemetery workers were observing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was no coincidence. That good man’s marriage to my sister was an alliance of dreamers who gave their children and their wider family the permission and indeed the inspiration to dream. In 1963, they were a young family new to a home and to the challenges of rearing children in an era of cynicism. He always made time to nurture the children’s dreams. On informal field trips to explore Staved Rock State Park in Illinois, he conveyed his confidence that the stone that was found was “very likely” an arrowhead shaped by the local Native American tribe hundreds of years before. They mounted a telescope on the porch of the Victorian house so the stars were a familiar landscape for them as their country made space a new frontier. She found ways to fit in sessions at the little school of “Creative Dramatics” into her already challenging schedule; to make certain that night prayers were followed by stories of Milne’s James, James Morrison Morrison, Weatherby George Dupree and the lulling cadences of “They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace.” Says who? Says Alice.
As the children became adults, the parents helped them craft larger wings to pursue the lofty air of creativity and refusal to take “you can’t” as the final word. Later, they gave wings to the talented and creative children by never standing in the way of their hopes to be actors (though they might have hoped for a less uncertain future for talented improvisers of Second City; a banker who simultaneously seeks a PhD in higher math; a small manufacturer championing Made in America in a global economy; a Midwestern marketer succeeding in the Far East.)
“I Have a Dream” remains for them all, not a pipe dream but the eminently practical expression of an agenda.
And so today as I search to find words for a worthy homage to dreamers of dreams, I invoke the words of a brilliant young language coach and jazz drummer who ennobled the precincts of Jimbo’s, the Buckingham Palace of Burgers on Manhattan’s First Avenue, by quoting Goethe’s reminder that “Death is a commingling of eternity with time; in the death of a good man, eternity is seen looking through time.”
The joy of this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and all it calls to mind is that sometimes we can enjoy both previews and encores and honor in one day the dreamers who have gone before and those still in our midst.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears on Sunday.