Apologist Adam Coleman shares his thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy 60 years after his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech
Monday 28th August marks 60 years since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Adam Coleman’s grandfather was personally invited to attended the event by Dr King (see this article). Adam reflected on the 60 years since Dr King’s speech with Ruth Jackson. Below is an adaptation of their conversation.
Do you think life is dramatically different in regards to segregation and racism than it was 60 years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered this speech?
That’s a good question, and in some ways, it’s a complicated question. On the surface, of course, there are some things that have changed. It’s irregular for groups of black people to be assaulted by police officers and water hoses. There are laws that are no longer on the books that were obviously discriminatory. So certainly, there have been some changes in that regard.
But in many ways, I do think the civil rights movement as expressed by the ‘I have a dream’ speech has in some ways been misinterpreted, in the sense that it wasn’t necessarily a reparative movement, as much as it was an access movement. Essentially, it was these rights that should be afforded to all people, whether it be voting or otherwise, we’ve been restricted from access. The country needs to grant us access to the things we ought to have already.
But it didn’t necessarily repair the bruises that had been exacted upon minorities. So that’s a whole different piece. There are economic bruises, there are social bruises, there are all types of bruises. So, for example, when you think about the practice of redlining, which I believe was on the books from 1935 to maybe 1964, 30 years of discriminatory practices from banking institutions doesn’t go away just because you grant access to people to vote. Obviously, there are economic implications of that, which unfortunately, I think still reverberate even today.
Of course, the civil rights movement was a turning point. And I think there’s been a great deal of positive change – we had a president in the White House, so obviously, there’s been some progression. Nevertheless, I think there’s still a way to go. And I think for that reason, 2020 and 2021 took a lot of people by surprise when we saw so much unrest with regard to racial tensions.
But I think if you understand that the civil rights movement was an access move, not necessarily a reparative movement, meaning addressing those economic and other bruises that had been exacerbated by the system, the government, then it makes a lot of sense why we would see a resurgence of that tension, because there’s still things that need to be healed.
So, what do we do to heal some of those tensions? Building on the legacy of people like Dr King, how do we move forward to repair some of that damage?
One of the things I love about America is that it has always been a place where the voice of the dissent has a place in the discussion. You can go back to Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.” That voice of contention holds value here in the States. And I think we just have to continue to honour that tradition, and realise that no nation is perfect. That’s just the nature of human beings. Human beings are imperfect and they create imperfect systems and structures. And so, with that in mind, it’s no shame of a nation to be diligent, to look for ways to continue to improve. And I think that’s what we need to be about the business of doing.
I think sometimes people misinterpret the nature of a critique. Whether it be Frederick Douglass or others. It’s actually in the critique that the love for America is often expressed. It’s in the desire to see America be its best self that people bring concerns to bear. And so I think we have to be discerning, I think we have to be diligent and disciplined, looking for areas where there can be improvement
In his ‘I have a dream’ speech, Martin Luther King Jr says: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Do you think this dream has been realised 60 years later?
That’s a hard question. I’m the father of five little children and so that’s something I think about quite often. I wish it were the case that I could feel comfortable sending my kids out anywhere and everywhere, not worrying about it. But I do have to think about Tamir Rice. I do have to think about the fact that my son who’s 8 looks like a 12-year-old and, depending on the context, might be mistaken for someone older than his age. And how, unfortunately, it is still the case that little black boys are often perceived as being a threat. That’s the reality we live in.
Studies show just about anybody you encounter, particularly in an African American context, either them or somebody they know, has experienced some sort of misconduct at the hands of the police. I am mindful that my children know that even though we love everybody, and that’s what Jesus teaches, nevertheless, we do have to be careful still, because everybody doesn’t abide by that.
I live in Virginia, I live in the South. And my day job is to be a community organiser, all day I work with clergy in terms of building bridges, so that we can have the kind of communities that Dr King described. And every day I have to drive by the Confederate battle flag and ride on the Jefferson Davis highway, who was the president of the Confederacy, and things of that nature. So, it says to me that, while there have been tremendous legal changes certainly in America, there’s still some heart changes that need to occur.
This was Dr King’s analysis too. He acknowledged that you can’t change people’s hearts necessarily with the law, but you can keep people from killing me, by putting certain things in place. And so, I think that’s the dichotomy we wrestle with – there’s certainly progress, I wouldn’t want to undermine that. I believe it’s a dignity to the greatest of our tradition to acknowledge the progress we’ve made, but I also think we have to be mindful that there’s still a way to go.
Martin Luther King Jr’s speech was saturated with the Bible. Why was his belief in equality embedded in a Christian worldview and what does that mean for us today when many people in the West seem to have rejected Christianity?
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This ‘I have a dream’ speech really does come on the tail end of a wave of freedom fighters, many of whom tapped into the biblical worldview to ground their fight for abolition. Dr King is greatly informed by that tradition. People like Ida B Wells, for example, who was another freedom fighter. She wasn’t just exposing lynchings in the South, she considered herself to be a missionary for the kingdom of Christ. We can talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Delany, JW Loguen, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen. There’s so many names who predate Dr King, who held on to the to the biblical worldview and utilised that in their fight for freedom.
It is unfortunate that many people have lost track of the necessity for maintaining the biblical worldview as people fight for freedom. Particularly on something like atheism or other worldviews, you just don’t have that moral grounding in order to even have the vantage point to argue for something like what Dr King argued for. I think we really pull the rug out from under the best of what a justice movement can be when we leave God to the side, and that’s something you see going back to the earliest points of the Freedom tradition amongst African Americans.
There was a gentleman by the name of Josiah Henson, he was the real life Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Josiah Henson was an abolitionist. He escaped to freedom and travelled around advocating for abolitionism. Later in his life, he wanted to bring his wife back to the plantation he’d come from. He writes in his autobiography that they went back but by this point, his former slave master had passed away. But the wife was still there. He went in to see her but she was very sickly, could barely see and didn’t recognise him. The only way she was able to recognise him was the scars on his arms from when he had saved the slave master’s life decades before. On feeling those scars, she recognised him and said: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your master is dead and gone.” He responded: “No, Madam, my master is yet alive.” He was referring to Jesus Christ.
It was this notion of anchoring oneself in something higher than one’s condition, particularly the God of Christianity, that for so many enslaved persons, propelled them forward to freedom and to strike out for the freedom for others. And it’s really what you see, again, culminating in the ‘I have a dream’ speech, that voice penetrating and being spoken to American society more broadly.
How can we best honour the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech?
When you look at that ‘I have a dream’ speech, he talks about how this is just the beginning. It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. And particularly when you think about some of his writings, where he’s talking about, say, the Vietnam War, nuclear power, economics and the importance of civilised nations engaging poverty, Dr King ultimately had in view, the ‘Imago Dei’. He mentioned in several of his speeches that we need to honour the Imago Dei. And it plays itself out in various different contexts, whether it be specifically in regard to race, or how we leverage power for and against one another, economics and so forth.
I think the best way to honour Dr King’s legacy is in your context. Who can you see where that Imago Dei is not being respected? Where’s it being undermined in some sort of way? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a racial slur, it can be in any way where the image of God, that basic foundation of dignity, is being undermined.
And obviously, Jesus harkens to this as well. So many times he talks about how God cares about the least of these. We ought to care about the least of these, we ought to care about people who are on the rough side of wherever society happens to be, the brokenness of this world. I think if we’re being intentional about caring for the least of these, caring for those who have not been treated in a way that’s commensurate to the Imago Dei, then that’s the best of what Dr King would want us to live out.
Adam Coleman leads a busy life as a husband, father of five children, social worker, published author and public speaker. Educationally, Adam has a background in the mental health field with specialisation in public advocacy. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in social work, Adam began a career of youth/family therapy, service to our nation’s veterans and community organisation. As a Christian apologist, Adam is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his Tru-ID Apologetics Youtube channel, Tru-ID Podcast, writings, social media engagement and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ while educating believers on how to be effective defenders of the faith. https://www.truidapologetics.com/