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Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003) 28-48

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Quoting, Merging, and Sampling the Dream
Martin Luther King and Vernon Johns

Ralph E. Luker


. . . until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Near the end of the exhilarating day of December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped into the pulpit of Montgomery, Alabama's Holt Street Baptist Church. With seven years of preaching behind him and "only twenty minutes to prepare the most decisive speech of my life," the twenty-six-year-old pastor of the city's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church had to outline the grievances of his people, justify their refusal to ride on Montgomery's city busses any longer, and encourage them in peaceful fortitude. In his speech that evening, the preacher recalled a single line of poetry. "Right here in Montgomery," he said, "when the history books are written in the future (yes), somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people (well), a black people (yes sir), "fleecy locks and black complexion" (yes), a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. [Applause] And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.'" 1

Nearly fifty years later, Rosa Parks still recalled those "prophetic words" as defining "the character of our nonviolent freedom struggle." 2 That single line of poetry suggests that King, Parks, and those who shared their struggle saw it as an effort to fulfill emancipation's unfulfilled promise. Invoked in a variety of contexts over many generations by preachers like Martin Luther King and Vernon Johns, King's more tempestuous predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist, it and related verses invoked a treasury of memory, an authority of prophetic tradition. Concurrently, the lines invoked the conservative authority of religious language and the radical hope of liberation.

Six months after the Holt Street address, King's Mother's Day sermon quoted a poetic couplet: "I must be measured by my soul—the mind is the standard of the man." King would employ these lines of poetry frequently in the next twelve years. Most commonly, however, they appeared together in an octrain:

Fleecy locks and black complexion
cannot forfeit nature's claim
Skin may differ but affection
Dwells in Black and White the same.
And were I so tall as to reach the pole [End Page 29]
Or grasp the ocean at a span,
I must be measured by my soul
The mind is the standard of the man.

Some scholars argue that King's vision of "beloved community"—a truly integrated society grounded in love and justice—was "the organizing principle" of his public ministry, the "capstone" of his thought, but King used these lines of poetry before he ever spoke of the "beloved community" and continued to invoke them long after he ceased to talk of it. 3 Embedded in them are clues to how his religious language moved his audience.

Many years later, these lines of poetry were so closely identified with King's memory that, even as he mangled them, U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1995, spoke of King's octrain as the essence of the Dream that King described at the March on Washington in 1963. "I hope that both the United States and Australia will reap the rewards of multiculturalism and keep them moving on," said Payne, at the end of an address to a Global Diversity Conference in Sydney, Australia. He then observed that King usually ended his speeches with this octrain:

Whether you have blond fleecy locks or black complexion
      It does not alternate nature claim.
Skin may differ but affection dwells
      in black and white the same.
Were I so tall as to reach the poles,
      span the oceans with my hands,
I must be measured by my soul
      which is the standard of a man.

Payne's reshaping of King's octrain for a conference on multiculturalism is remarkably awkward, and King rarely, if ever, used...