Washington, DC, the home of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is reveling in the National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 to April 14) as the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere are now approaching their glorious but short-lived “peak bloom.”
We thought we’d revisit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, first discussed in this blog post by Manifold Greatness curator Hannibal Hamlin around the time of the memorial’s original (but storm-delayed) dedication in August 2011.
Martin Luther King often quoted from the Bible, including the King James Bible, in his speeches, including a line from Amos evoking a time when justice runs down “like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” You can see that quotation in the inscription here from a 1955 speech in Montgomery, Alabama. And yes, those are cherry blossoms at the top of the picture!
Over the past year and a half of the Manifold Greatness exhibit’s continuing travels, some of the Manifold Greatness host sites have included special events that touched on King’s use of the King James Bible as well as the connection between the King James Bible and the black church tradition. For more examples of the role of the King James Bible in American public life, you may want to explore the Modern Life image gallery on our Manifold Greatness website.
The King Memorial is located directly on the Tidal Basin, which is encircled by those blossoming Japanese cherry trees. King’s statue looks across the water at the Jefferson Memorial, which has its own historic associations with the King James Bible. One of Thomas Jefferson’s post-presidential projects was to assemble, from scripture, an account of Jesus’ teachings that excluded supernatural elements, producing what he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. You can see one passage in the Historic American Bibles image gallery on the Manifold Greatness website, or learn much more about it at the Smithsonian’s Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, which includes a complete online facsimile.
In between the Jefferson and King memorials along the edge of the Tidal Basin is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Unlike many American presidents, however, Roosevelt does not offer us a simple King James Bible connection through his inauguration ceremonies. Franklin Roosevelt followed the tradition of being sworn in on a Bible, and he used the same one for all four inaugurations (he had also used it when he was sworn in as governor of New York in 1928 and 1930). But it was not the King James Bible. Roosevelt was sworn in on his family’s 1686 Dutch Bible (scroll down to see photos), the oldest Bible used at any presidential inauguration to date, and the only inaugural Bible in a modern foreign language, Dutch.
The traveling exhibit Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife appears next in mid-April at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky; the Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage in coordination with the Tifton-Tift County Public Library in Tifton, Georgia; and the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland.
Tomorrow (August 28) was to have been the day for officially opening the new and long-awaited Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. Hurricane Irene delayed these plans along with so much else. (Check the Memorial’s website for updates on the ceremony plans for the future.) August 28 remains, of course, the anniversary of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
For the past week, the site on the Tidal Basin, on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, has been open to visitors, though, who could view the impressive sculpture by Lei Yixin and the many quotations from King’s speeches and writings engraved around the site. The Memorial has generated some controversy, first for the choice of a Chinese sculptor. It’s also been pointed out that one of the engraved quotations is broadly paraphrased rather than quoted exactly, and another, though spoken by King, was originally from a sermon given a century earlier by Theodore Parker.
Be all that as it may, the sculpture, “The Stone of Hope,” looks impressive, though I’ve as yet seen it only in photos. The concept derives from a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 48 years ago tomorrow, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King said that with faith in the dream, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Yixin has shown King himself as a kind of stone of hope emerging out of the marble block. King’s language here, as so often, is deeply biblical. My uncle, Carl Scovel, a Unitarian minister, attended the March on Washington in 1963 and heard King and others speak. He said to me it was striking how biblical King’s rhetoric sounded, far more so than any of the other speakers. Hewing stone comes up a lot in the King James Bible. King may not be thinking of any particular passage, but there are several that he might have had in mind. Moses is commanded by God to hew two tables of stone that will become the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:1-4), for instance. And Jesus is buried in a tomb hewn out of the rock, with a stone rolled in front of it (Matthew 27:59-60). The Temple in Jerusalem is built by the workers of David and Solomon hewing stones out of the mountain (1 Chronicles 22, 2 Chronicles 2).
One of the inscriptions on the walls of MLK memorial contains a passage from the prophet Amos that obviously spoke to King: he used it often, including during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and later in the “I Have Dream” speech. The wording on the memorial is from the Montgomery speech: “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” In 1963, King modified the words slightly: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” The quoted verse is from Amos 5:24 and the language is that of the KJV, with the single exception of the word “justice.” The KJV translators chose “judgment” instead, but the word was altered to “justice” in the American Standard Version (1901), which King may have been remembering as well. (He could also have known the Revised Standard Version of 1952, which also has “justice,” but it changes “mighty stream” to “ever-flowing stream,” so King wasn’t remembering this translation.)
The language of the King James Bible, its word choices, its rhythms and patterns of speech, have been a part of American public oratory for the country’s entire history, especially, though not exclusively, among African Americans. (Lincoln’s speeches were highly biblical.) Appropriately, at the inauguration of American’s first African American president, Barack Obama, the Rev. Joseph Lowry repeated the verse from Amos’s prophecy that was so important to Martin Luther King. In his benediction, Lowry looked forward, as King had done, to the time “when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” That final time of Justice might not yet have arrived, but Lowry must have been thinking that at least some of those waters had rolled down since 1963. King had looked down the Mall toward the Capitol as he shared his dream of racial equality, but Lowry, and Obama, looked back the opposite way from the steps of the Capitol itself.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.