Martin Luther King’s mission was a consequence of his ministry, grounded in a Christian vision of human dignity, under the fatherhood of God.
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Monday marks “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day” in the United States: a day off from work for many of our fellow citizens, but also a day for serious thought and reflection. Editorials on this day typically (and justifiably) focus on King’s political legacy.
But often overlooked is how his mission was above all a consequence of his ministry—grounded in a Christian vision of human dignity and family-like solidarity, under the fatherhood of a watchful God. Rev. King’s oratory had its rhetorical roots in the cadences of the King James Bible: in the prophetic poetry of Isaiah and Micah, and certainly in the Gospel utterances of Jesus.
It found another source in the vernacular of America—especially in its tradition of songs: from old-time Protestant hymns, to spirituals, to anthems of wholesome patriotism.
Armenians might find a special point of contact here, for our music likewise resonates in deeply religious ways. Through our sharagans (hymns), our people express, in a unified way, an entire system of belief: an experience of sorrow, but above all a sense of hope. A faith, really, in the ultimate beneficence of God.
Similar chords are struck in Rev. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Its concluding words weave together the strands of religious redemption and national aspiration, using the common thread of spiritual song.
The uplifting result is not so different from what churchmen of another time and place accomplished when they penned the sharagans of the Armenian Divine Liturgy. In that liturgy, as in the following words of Rev. King, song creates a unity of distinct voices, lifting our hearts and our thoughts upward:
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Above: The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (May 17, 1957) viewed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. (Photo by Bob Henriques.)
—Christopher H. Zakian