Civil Rights icon Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a theologian and pastor, who used biblical texts and imagery extensively in his speeches and sermons. Here is a selection of five biblical quotations and allusions that you may not have noticed in his work (in chronological order).
“And there is still a voice saying to every potential Peter, ‘Put up your sword.'”
Following the Detroit Walk to Freedom in 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, King spoke to a huge audience at Cobo Hall. In the speech, he encouraged the crowd to support and employ methods of non-violent resistance. The “potential Peter” refers to Peter’s use of violence after Jesus’s betrayal by Judas and subsequent arrest in John 18. Simon Peter cuts of the ear of the high priest’s slave, and Jesus tells him to put away his sword. (Also see Matthew 26; Mark 14; and Luke 22.)
“We will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'”
At the famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King encouraged the marchers to continue to march forward and to refuse to turn back. Responding to those who ask when the demonstrators will be satisfied, King quoted Amos 5:24. In this text, the author of Amos indicates that the Lord will reject the festivals and sacrifices of the proud and powerful and instead bring justice and righteousness.
“And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”
At the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, King gave this acceptance speech in which speaks of his continued hope and faith in humanity. In this quote, he cites two eighth-century BCE prophets, Isaiah and Micah. In Isaiah 11:6, the reign of the ideal king will permit natural adversaries to live together in harmony. In Micah 4:4, a new age of peace will allow nations to convert weapons into farming tools and to live peacefully and securely without fear.
“And thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.'”
King’s 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech is not as well-known as many of his other speeches and sermons. King spoke out against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City, discussing the importance of revolution and mentioning how Western nations created by revolutionaries become anti-revolutionary. King argued that continued challenges to the political status quo will bring about change. In this context, he cited Isaiah’s message of comfort and solace to exiled Israel in Isaiah 40:4, which calls for a new Exodus.
“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
In his famous 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis — King mentioned being stabbed by Izola Curry in 1958 and explained that he is not concerned with living a long life. King compares himself to Moses who sees the land that God has given to the Israelites although he himself does not enter (See Numbers 27:12 and Deuteronomy 34).
Image: President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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