Tell Em About The Dream Martin: The Anatomy of the Sermon

I’m not gonna take up too much of your time. I just want to talk to you about a Baptist preacher that went all the way to the nation’s capital and gave the sermon to beat all sermons. I wanna talk about a Baptist whoop that got people shouting, dancing and crying. I wanna talk about a whoop so good that it made Jesus wanna get off the cross to personally high five him and Lincoln stand straight up and say amen!

But for the unseasoned folks in the back row let me back up and explain to you exactly what a whoop is.

According to “Whooping is when the words of the preacher begin taking on a musical quality. The preaching blends into musicality.” It is every comedic preacher imitation that you have ever seen. It rhyming phrases, high pitched squeals and low growls. It is the perfect hook after a sweet verse. Sometimes it’s a stirring refrain.  It is the reinforcement of the lesson. It is not THE lesson. And therein lies the problem with commercial, i.e. white, interpretations of the I Have a Dream speech.

Most interpretations of the I Have a Dream speech stick to MLK’s description of his dream. I mean people stick to it like it’s the to-do list of racial justice. The problem with this type of analysis is that Dr. King directly proceeds this cadence with a very weighty description of the issues that need to be addressed in the black community. In the true tradition of a good preacher he lays out his text, cites his examples and even gives it an emblematic metaphor. Instead of a biblical verse, he cites both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence as the texts that he intends to break down.

Now, as a child that grew up in the black church, I will admit this next part is the one I usually miss. This is part that gets a bit boring and wordy and then your friends start passing around pictures or writing you letters and you tend to miss it. However, the mid-section of the sermon is always most important. The call for action is in the body of the sermon. It is in this somber midsection that MLK describes America’s default on the check the country wrote promising the “unalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is in this midsection where he encourages the resistance of the oppressed and encourages them to keep pursuing the rights guaranteed by this check. It is in this wonderfully worded body that he stresses the urgency of now and why we can’t wait until the privileged class decides that we are worthy of receiving the rights that were promised to us. It is in this space where he says “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

If the body of the sermon is the part that should make us think then what are the points that Dr. King would want us to hone in on in pursuit of justice. He has already warned of the continuous uprisings if America doesn’t move towards racial justice and equality. If one wants to find the answers to questions about what the oppressed seeks they can find it here:

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Like Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille and all the other black men and women that have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement.

“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.” Like all the people that have got caught up Air BNB’ing while black.

“We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” Like those affected by gentrification and redlining.

“We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity.” Like young girls being slung around like a rag doll and pinned down with a boot in their neck.

“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” As in states with voter tampering or formerly incarcerated folks who are in states where they still can’t vote.

That could have been the end of the message but that’s just not how sermons work. You don’t just read of a text and then give a concise explanation of the text and leave it at that. NO! What fun would that be? You have to do what we call taking it to the cross. Baptist preachers say that no matter what you are preaching about you should always end by taking them to the cross. You always wind up your message by reminding them of the goal and the hope. In the church that hope lies in the cross. In Dr. Kings message that hope lies in The Dream.

Enter the mother of Gospel music, Mahalia Jackson. I have heard the story of her role in the I Have a Dream speech told many times. You can tell whether a black person or white person is telling the story by how they describe it. One person called it her “role in Dr. King’s improvisation.” Another stated that she “gave wing” to Dr. King’s speech. Well, allow me to blacken this up just a little bit. Let me start by reminding you that Dr. King was a down home Baptist preacher from Georgia. He is one of the most brilliant orators in American history but we must acknowledge that a good chunk of that brilliance was just good ole fashioned preaching. Preaching full of the same flares and cadences that so many black folks were already accustomed to.

When you hear Mahalia Jackson call out in the middle of the speech “Tell em about the dream, Martin!” folks in the church know that as the call & response that ushers in the whoop. King speechwriter Clarence B Jones recalled the moment that Mahalia called out to Martin. He said that Martin took a pause and when Martin paused Clarence looked over at the person standing next to him and said “These people out there, they don’t know it but they are about to go to church.” Dr. King did just that. He put away his written speech just like we have seen so many preachers do when they close their Bible and they run the rest of the way on emotion. That “I Have a Dream” was emotion. It ran as much on the intense response of the crowd as by Dr. Kings dreams of an idyllic view a perfect United States of America. It was a perfect whoop that reinforced every point, that hit every raw spot, that touched the emotions of every person on the Mall that day. But it wasn’t the meat of the speech it was the goal that we were and are still running towards. It was him building on the intensity of the words that that he could leave them on a high note reflecting on the entirety of his sermon.

That is the hallmark of a great preacher right there. We cannot 54 years later let the lesson get obscured by a great whoop. We must continue to return to the initial points again and again to remind ourselves that we still have a check that hasn’t been fully cashed. Let’s make a commitment today to not be dazzled by the whoop but remember the steps that Dr. King gave us so that we may get to the Dream and finally get to take our rest in a high-backed chair and drink from the glass of water with the napkin on top.

Okay that was another church reference that we will have to deconstruct on a different day.


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