12 hours before the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his iconic I Have a Dream speech, he still didn’t know what he was going to say. But on that historical day, August 28th 1963, Dr. King lead the march and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivered a speech that would be known as one of the most important in America’s history.
In his speech, Dr. King references the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III’s when he said, “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn...” indicating a faith for the finality of difficult times for minorities, a foretelling that the season was about to change in the social climate of America.
Toward the end of his speech something miraculous happened. The famous Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was nearby and used her commanding voice to shout, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” At that point Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech. He stood in his power and began preaching to the quarter of a million people in attendance on the lawn of the memorial as well as the millions and millions who have since heard his words, punctuating each point with “I Have a Dream.” According to U.S Representative John Lewis who also spoke that day, "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. . . he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations." 50 years later, we are those generations.
Part of the power of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech was his important references. In it, Dr. King references not only Shakespeare, the Bible, Gospel spirituals, political and religious leaders, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution, but also Dr. King’s speech and entire social message was a strong, tacit reference to the principle of non-violent revolution for the sake of making lasting social change. This principle of non-violence was championed by the social revolution led by Mahatma Gandhi who referenced the ancient Yoga Sutras. In Sanskrit the word Ahimsa means non-violence. The Yoga Sutras state that in order to become one’s highest self, one must embrace the seminal principle of non-violence which is truly the gateway of unconditional love. Dr. King was so inspired by Gandhi that in 1959 he visited Gandhi’s birthplace in Gujarat, India. This visit left a profound impression of the concept of non-violent civil disobedience and further strengthened Dr. King’s commitment toward America’s struggle for human rights. And just like in India, it was a non-violent revolution that drove lasting change in America’s social attitudes.
In his speech, Dr. King also references transformational heat. In the Yoga Sutras, Tapas is defined as the heat necessary for transformation, like pottery fired in a kiln. Yoga means union. In yoga, we practice implementing this transformational heat to bind body, mind, and heart in our own person to work toward our highest self. With this proverbial heat, we then direct and bind the larger body of our family, our community, our nation, and our world in the spirit of its highest self. Growing pains are evidence of Tapas. Certainly there were growing pains in the Human Rights Movement. This heat was Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. It was The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. It was The March on Washington in 1963. It was Bloody Sunday in 1965. The heat that causes change can be necessarily uncomfortable, sometimes outright painful. Dr. King was on the burning tip of the spear of social transformation, a searing heat that would eventually take his life. But because of the heat of this social movement, The March on Washington and the I Have a Dream speech were two events that helped signal America’s transformation of becoming a greater nation. That speech marked and catalyzed significant growth in this country. We are still growing.
Transformation starts with an individual. Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.… We need not wait to see what others do.” How are we willing to step into that heat of personal transformation? Are we willing to personally grow to ensure a strong body, bright mind, and open heart to grow into our highest potential? Are we willing to stand up for an injustice? And how do we make that change both as an individual and as a nation that allow all parts to grow stronger rather than being cut or compromised? Surely this is a difficult task. To ensure mutual growth, we change while practicing non-violence, Ahimsa. Like Gandhi and Dr. King discovered, Ahimsa is the non-violent revolution both internally and globally that will make lasting change. Whether it’s internal change like greater mindfulness or a more healthy body or external political or social change like gun control, same-sex marriage, political partisanship, undocumented immigrants, or anything else, the question is how can we instigate a change that invites us parts to grow in the process?
We’ve grown as a nation since 1963 but we still have more to do to honor all the beings who live here. It is because of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. that we have a strong foothold on freedom, a firm platform where we can step into America’s future and truly become the nation that our forefathers like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and leaders like Dr. King believed we could be, one that we can dream of for ourselves. We can’t go back. We can never unlearn what we’ve learned. We can move forward. We can grow individually and as a nation by referencing the past. We can reference both the failures of social inequality (they still exist), and the inspiration of the I Have a Dream speech, as mile markers that will direct us toward protecting the freedoms that make us all grow closer to actualizing our highest potential individually and as a nation. And we can use the principles of non-violence (Ahimsa) through understanding the principle of heat necessary for transformation (Tapas) to help us in this practice. We can practice moving toward a future where like Dr. King says children of all races (and I believe given current social and political issues he would include people of all sexual orientation, documented and undocumented immigrants, gun loving and gun hating people, Republican and Democrats, etc.) could all hold hands and with exuberance shout the refrain, “Free at last! free at last! thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
Join me this week as we continue Dr. Kings legacy by practice transformation through non-violence and grow individually as the first step to continuing our growth as a nation.