When Abraham Lincoln died after having been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Secretary of war Edward Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages. There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen."
Lincoln, who always had a modest appreciation of his own merits, probably would have disagreed that he was a perfect ruler; or, at least, he might have made some joke about it. Lincoln and humor were always on good terms with each other. A heckler in an audience once charged he was “two-faced.” Lincoln stopped in mid-sentence and shouted back at the heckler, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”
On August 28 of this year, the nation will be celebrating in Washington DC, within sight of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural -- delivered on March 4, 1865, about a month before the end of the Civil War on April 9 and a little more than a month before Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, Good Friday -- ends with a plea for peace at the expected close of a brutal war. The last paragraph is an eloquent plea for national concord:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But more martial notes are earlier sounded, and Lincoln here views the horrors of the war as a Godly judgment. The body of the speech on slavery and God’s judgment on the nation begins with this trumpet blast:
“Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”
But Lincoln – and, more importantly, the God of Abraham -- does judge. Between man’s purposes in time and God’s purposes in eternity, the great Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, “there is an infinite qualitative difference.” Lincoln was sensible of the difference:
“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
These words, graven on the North Wall of the Lincoln Memorial, were burned into the brain and bone of King and other notable black leaders such as Fredrick Douglas. They fittingly serve as a backdrop for the “I Have A Dream” speech.
Like Lincoln, Martin Luther King belongs to the ages. His justly celebrated speech compares well with other famous speeches. Both Lincoln and King were prose poets of a high order. Lincoln occupied the public stage at a time when the world was moving from the Victorian Age towards Edwardian Age. Although King was a modern, he was also preeminently a Baptist preacher given to adorning his speeches with Biblical and other references.
The “I Have A Dream” speech, originally designed by King as an homage to Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address” and timed to correspond to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, was studded with scriptural references, as befitted a Baptist preacher. The anaphoric use of the phrase “I have a dream” in the speech appeared to have been an improvisation of the moment after singer Mahalia Jackson cried out to King from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King did, and the wobbly knees of black oppression buckled.