Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

Peter Paul And Mary  1965I was driving home from Oklahoma last night and listening to my Peter, Paul and Mary playlist, and in one of their medleys they sang We Shall Overcome. Of course, they have a history with that song as do many of us who lived during the turbulent 60s. Even today, listening to it stirs deep, sometimes unnamed emotions in me like very few songs.

The origin of the song is disputed.  For many years the root of the song was attributed to Charles Albert Tindley’s gospel song I’ll Overcome Someday , first published in 1901. Tindley was a well-known pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and wrote over forty other published gospel songs. He is best remembered for his very quotable lyrics such as these from I’ll Overcome Someday:

The world is one great battlefield
With forces all arrayed.
If in my heart I do not yield,
I’ll overcome some day

If you accept this starting point, then there is evidence that the song—or a version of it became popular quite early among labor union workers, but disappeared from the gospel world.

Other strong evidence points to Louise Shropshire’s gospel hymn If My Jesus Wills as the original version. She was an African American Baptist choir director who apparently knew personally some key African American artists in the civil rights movement.

The simplicity of both the lyrics and the melody—as well as the emotional context that continues to make it a song of protest and of hope—certainly come down to us today from the protest singers of the late 50s and early 60s.

What you may not know is the President Lyndon B. Johnson is also credited with extending the impact of this gospel hymn when he used the phrase “we shall overcome” in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, after the nation had seen the pictures of attacks of civil rights demonstrators during the Selma to Montgomery marches.

But if you associate the song with any one historical figure from that time, you probably have never forgotten how Martin Luther King used the hymn to encourage and rally those who would stand up with him.

On Sunday, March 31, 1968, just hours before his assassination, King quoted the lyrics of We Shall Overcome in his final sermon in Memphis.  His words from his famous sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California, will give you the sense of how he used these words:

We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right; “no lie can live forever”. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; “truth crushed to earth will rise again”. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:.

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the then unknown
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

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 speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy

As our nation finishes a month set aside to remember Black History and a day to remember Dr. King, it seemed fitting to me on this Sunday morning to remember a hymn that belongs to all who believe that this world is a broken place where people whom God loves still oppress and abuse other children of God.  The Apostle Paul put it this way in Romans 8:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship  . . . .

And notice that the apostle used the communal we in his writing, just as apparently the original words to this hymn were changed from I will overcome  to We shall overcome.  It’s not so much about the individual as about the congregation!

So, finally, again the words of Paul from which this hymn sprang:

Galatians 6:9 – And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

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In anyone’s list of great American speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is among the very best.  As I thought about great modern speeches, I thought about Franklin Roosevelt’s “The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself,” delivered early in the Depression that brought America to dusty knees.


I thought about John Kennedy’s “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You” speech, delivered when a country was afraid it might be losing its place in the world to Communism.

Then, in a very different time, Ronald Reagan lifted a nation’s broken heart after the Challenger disaster in just about four minutes of carefully planned rhetoric, including the final words about the ill-fated astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”  He also is created practically with the fall of the Berlin Wall with his “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

I wonder if we will ever have another speech of this caliber by an American statesman?  Bill Clinton was a great speaker, but both his most famous as well most notorious speeches seem to all deal with infidelity.  Both Presidents Bush could occasionally produce a reasonable sound bite, but I don’t believe either will make the rhetorical Hall of Fame.

President Obama has great moments!  His eloquence is apparent, but history will judge if his words and ideas inspire future generations as great speeches do!

Of all of these, I believe Dr. King’s is the one that will last the longest. His words are not pretentious; the metaphors are simple, but the power of his rhetoric stirs people to tears even now, some forty-eight years after that day in Washington D.C., on the mall.

If you just think about each of the speeches above, some commonalities are strikingly obvious:

1              The address is unashamedly bipartisan—universal. King does not talk only to or about African-Americans. He talks about “all of God’s children!” Kennedy talks to “my fellow Americans.”  Strident, partisan rhetoric may capture the votes of the masses, but the words have no lasting power.

2.            The words are all meant to bring people together, to unite people behind great ideals! Freedom, universal needs, human rights, these have been ideas that have inspired great work and great words since men could speak. Petty people have petty ideas. Great people rise above pettiness.

3.            Lofty language carries lofty ideas. Sherrylee and I visited the JFK Presidential Library in Boston last year. I remember clearly reading the instructions that JFK gave to his speech writers for his inauguration. He asked for brevity, he asked for simplicity of ideas, but he also asked for memorable language.

We do not live in an age that appreciates lofty language. In fact, perhaps the opposite is true. We are suspicious of rhetoric and we don’t understand metaphor.  Brief attention spans, 24-hour news cycles, and information overload have made extraneous words obsolete!  But are the right words ever unnecessary??

President Reagan could have closed his Challenger remarks by saying, “We are all saddened by their death!” instead of quoting the poetic lines about touching the face of God, but would anyone have remembered it?

President Kennedy could have said, “Don’t expect government handouts; get busy and accomplish your own goals and we’ll all be better off!—but who would remember what he said?

Dr. King could have argued legally the case for civil rights, or simply scathed white Americans for lynching the civil rights of Black Americans. Instead he found rhythm and poetry that lives on!

They all chose lofty words, inspiring words, words that were delivered to bring people together, words that captured people’s imaginations with images they understood.

I have a dream that we can talk civilly to each other in public, that we will expect our leaders to do the same, that we will vote out abusive rhetoric in politics.

I have a dream that we will allow sublime language back into our churches to lift our spirits, to inspire us, to unite us, to help us imagine God, to help us hear His Spirit.

“In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was with God, and The Word was God!”

We once made the acquaintance of a young Greek girl named Mary. She was a wonderful person, but unchurched, so we gave her a copy of the New Testament in Modern Greek. When we gave it to her, we opened it to the Gospel of John and asked her to read these first verses. As she did, she began to cry. She said, she had never read anything so beautiful!

She did go to church with us, but then we lost contact, so I don’t know if the beautiful words became saving words for her or not. I have no doubt, however, that salvation is beautiful, that it is lofty! After all—The Word IS God!

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