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We Can Achieve MLK's Dream Without His Faith(1)

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe(2)
Posted: April 08, 2015

I have also ventured to draw parallels from the Bible and the Koran and the words of the great seers who drew their inspiration from those great books, in order to show how, in the deepest things of life, the Hindu and the Mussalman [the Muslim] and the Christian, the Indian and the European, in fact all who cared and endeavored to read the truth of things, are so spiritually akin.

Mahadev Desai, The Gospel of Selfless Action or, The Gita According to Gandhi

I want to thank Wellesley InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Wellesley Cru Christian Fellowship for inviting me to participate in their VERITAS Forum on the very important discussion, "Can We Achieve MLK's Dream Without His Faith?" I have taken the opposite position: that is, "We Can Achieve MLK's Dream Without His Faith." At the very least, one can say that this is a very challenging proposition since one could never separate MLK from his faith although the task this evening seems to be that of disentangling MLK from his faith, zeroing in on his message, and how he delivered that message. I am convinced that we can achieve MLK's dream without his faith; a proposition I hope to prove by drawing on three examples: those of Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Necessarily, such a challenge sent me back to examine MLK's famous "I Have a Dream" speech that contains the essence of his beliefs. Interestingly enough, this speech was delivered on August 28, 1963, on the same day the news of the death of W. E. B. Du Bois, that indefatigable black fighter for justice, was announced. It was almost as though King was delivering a message that had been passed down through the ages: from George Washington (and the Declaration of Independence) to Lincoln; from Lincoln to MLK via Du Bois and his struggle for justice that endured for the ninety-five years of his life. Garry Commins observed: "King believed in the ballot, in education, and integration. He joined young W. E. B. Du Bois in the post-Reconstruction dream that education and voting rights could deliver racial equality."(3)

Anyone who examines King's historic speech will be moved not only by his faith-as indispensable as that is-but also by the power of his oratorical performance, the grandiloquence of his language and his deft rhetorical moves. All of these rhetorical elements are discernable in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. It may not be coincidental that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered on November 19, 1863, almost one hundred years before King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Such a trajectory is important. King, it seemed, in substance and cadence, was almost following Lincoln to the letter of the law.

Compare, if you may, the opening of King's speech with the opening of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

MLK: Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustices. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

After this opening, King plunges us into the present [meaning 1963.] He continues:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro still lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

So far, there is nothing about religion or faith in this address. This is purely a rhetorical argument, which can be discerned in the repetition of key words at the beginning of his sentences (linguists call it anaphora): the organization of key ideas; and the nature of the argumentation.

Here is the beginning of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Then, like King, he plunged into his present:

Now [meaning 1865] we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Without much fanfare, Lincoln, like King, went on to deal with the business of the day and what each had gone to their respective places to do: that is, to remind a nation of its unfinished work. In a way, each address possessed the same theme which Lincoln defined so clearly: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus so nobly advanced." After this very workmanlike idea, he called on the nation to resolve "that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." These words ultimately became the definition of democracy.

It seems to me, that King did a similar thing. After reciting the promise of the United States, chronicled in the founding document, the Declaration of Independence, he plunged right into the challenges that faced the nation, declaring, "We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now," a phrase that President Barack Obama is fond of using. King then defines the obstacles that were placed in the way of African Americans becoming free and full citizens and then declares:

Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

He then expresses his wish that "one day in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

And then and only at this point he draws on Isaiah to drive home his point when he says:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

The only phase he left out from that quote from Isaiah 40, verse 5, was: "for the mouth of the Lord had spoken it." In other words, it was almost as though the joining of hands of all Americans-black and white, etc.—was commanded by God.

That was the hope and the faith that he wished to take back to the South with him.

It is true that King grew up in a social gospel tradition that was deeply influenced by his father and men like Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College, and Mordecai Johnson, the first African American president of Howard University. Andrew Wilkes, my son-in-law, has reminded me that King's sermons and personal reflections "speak frequently about his wrestling with everything from Marx's Das Kapital and Reinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society to Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis and numerous texts on Church history"(4) which suggests that King's mastering of these theological and economic texts played as important a role in the formulation of his dream as his faith.

King's themes, as my son-in-law has pointed out, emphasized the dignity and worth of all human personality—regardless of one's religious commitment—and the need to reconcile love, power, and justice in society. Yet, it seems to me that there is nothing specifically religious about the themes, which King wrestled with in terms of his social and political work. As a religious man, he could always borrow from all sources, including the wisdom of the Bible. In this I see nothing unusual. Even as a nonreligious man, I always have recourse to the Bible to illustrate some of the noblest human principles.

In this context I am reminded of the young Marx who, in "Reflections of a Young Man in Search of a Profession" had no qualms about drawing on Christian theology to make his point. Francis Wheen noted: Marx was "a bourgeois Jew from a predominantly Catholic city within a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism."(5) We all know the story of his later becoming an "atheist" and Communist. But when in 1835, he reflected on his choice of career, he was wise enough to acknowledge: "To man, too, the Deity [that is the creator or the supreme being] gave a general aim, that of ennobling mankind and himself, but he left it to man to seek the means by which this aim can be achieved; he left it to him to choose the position in society most suited to him, from which he can best uplift himself and society."(6)

After eliminating some of the pitfalls that deflected a person from choosing a job rather than a profession, Marx concluded:

But the chief guide, which must direct us in the choice of profession, is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection. It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict, that one would have to destroy the other; on the contrary, man's nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow man.

If he works only for himself, he may perhaps become a famous man of learning, a great sage, an excellent poet, but he can never be a perfect, truly great man.

History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy; religion itself teaches us that the ideal being whom all strive to copy sacrificed himself for the sake of mankind, and who would dare to set at nought such judgments?

My reading of this statement suggests that the essence in achieving any goal—in this context, the transformation of society as in the case of MLK or Lincoln—consists in dedicating oneself to a task, fully in the recognition that a man's greatest measure can be found in his giving himself to and for others even as one found in the example of Jesus, the Christ. Rob Stout, in reviewing Wheen's book on Marx commented: "Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion—or been so calamitously misinterpreted."(7) Or, perhaps as Marx would say of himself: "I am tormented as Job, though not as God-fearing."

Even the great Bob Marley, among the wisest of our philosophers, argues in his song "Pass It On":

Be not selfish in your doings;
Help your brothers in their needs.
Live for yourself, you will live in vain;
Live for others, you will live again.
In the kingdom of Jah,
Man shall reign.
Pass it on.

Such an observation leads me to my final point. In 1933-34, while Mahatma Gandhi, the great Hindu prophet, was imprisoned, he translated the Gita, the great Hindu text, into English. The Gita for Gandhi became a spiritual reference book. In The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According to Gandhi, Gandhi writes: "Man is not at peace with himself till he has become like unto God. The endeavor to reach this state is the supreme, the only ambition worth having. And this is self-realization. This self-realization is the subject of the Gita, as it is of all scripture."(8)

According to Gandhi, the only way that one achieves self-realization is through the renunciation of the fruits of action. This, he says, "is the center round which the Gita is woven. This renunciation is the central sun, round which devotion, knowledge and the rest revolve like planets."(9) Then he goes on to say:

I have felt that in trying to enforce in one's life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow Truth and ahimsa [nonviolence]. When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or ahimsa. Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain the cherished end. But it may be freely admitted that the Gita was not written to establish ahimsa. It was an accepted and primary duty even before the Gita age. The Gita had to deliver the message of renunciation of fruit.

Gandhi, as we know, went on to lead India's liberation struggle against the British. The country became free in 1947. Gandhi was not a Christian. However, he had a set of beliefs that allowed him to withstand in the evil day as the Bible suggests. My point is this. There is nothing incompatible with a great religious belief and the striving toward the attainment of human freedom. One need not have a set of religious beliefs (in this case, the Christian beliefs of MLK) in order to fight against oppression which ultimately fueled King's dream and his striving toward a realization of himself in his work or what he might have called God's work.

One might even argue that love was at the center of King's universe as it was at the center of Gandhi's universe. MLK at his majestic best put it this way:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

During his early life Gandhi believed that God is Truth. Later in life, he went a step farther and affirmed, Truth is God.

Now, I do not wish to elaborate the point except to say that with Love and Truth and purposefulness we can achieve anything on which we set our hearts. The legacy of King's faith, to quote my son-in-law, "is the understanding that religion can be a constructive force for racial equality, a source of solidarity, and an irreplaceable source of cosmic companionship (King's words) with the Divine Christ. But King did not claim that religion was the sole or primary source of morality or action. He did, however, claim that ours is a moral universe that bends toward justice.

Surely, then, even as we admire King's Christian faith, we certainly can achieve his dream of a moral and ethical world without his Christian faith.


  1. This paper represents the negative response to a debate, "Can We Achieve MLK's Dream Without His Faith," presented by the VERITAS Forum that took place at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Professor Marta F. Fredrick, Professor of African and African American Studies and of Religion, Harvard University, argued the affirmative position.

  2. Professor Cudjoe is a professor of Africana Studies, Wellesley College.

  3. Gary Commins, Spiritual People/Radical Lives (San Francisco, CA: Freedom Voices, 2000), 169.

  4. Andrew Wilkes, Personal Communications, April 1, 2015.

  5. Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000)

  6. Karl Marx, "Reflections of a Young Man in Search of a Profession."

  7. Rob Stout, CER (Central European Review), September 11, 2000.

  8. Mahadev Desai, The Gospel of Selfless Action or The Gita According to Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1946), 128-29.

  9. Ibid., 129.

Selwyn R. Cudjoe is a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. He can be reached at

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