Because I am 1.) a speech fanatic and 2.) required to stay up to continually check on a student in the hospital, I decided to take some time and listen to/watch the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The speech, currently ranked first out of the top 100 speeches of all time by American Rhetoric, can be seen, heard, and read at that website.

I’ve read/heard the speech before, but as I was reading/listening to the speech this time, a particular word kept standing out to me — “creative.” When I heard this the first time, I thought it interesting that King chose that word. But then when I read it a second time, I zeroed in on it, looking for an ulterior motive.

Let’s take a look at the first use of the word

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The thing that struck me in this usage of the word is that this “creative” is not being used in the way that we usually use it — something seems off from the normal use of the word. Notice the word “degenerate” immediately following, and then let’s zoom in on the word “creative.” “Degenerate” signals that something that is either fully or partially put together is falling apart. With this in mind, “creative,” if it’s used as a balance for the sentence, must be used in a literal sense. King is actually talking about building something from the protest. This “rising to the majestic heights” will occur by building on this one-of-a-kind protest (inspired by Ghandi).

King uses the word “creative” again when he addresses those who have already paid the price for the movement, those civil rights activists who were already beaten and jailed.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

King again uses “creative,” a word that has a normally positive connotation, in a setting that is negative. Surrounded by words like “storm,” “persecution,” “staggered,” “brutality,” and “suffering,” “creative” is certainly distinguished in that group. The meaning that came forth in our previous experience with the word seems to fit here, too. King could have used “suffering” alone, leaving out creative altogether. But he didn’t. Which means that “creative suffering” may also mean “suffering with a purpose,” or suffering that produces or yields something in King’s head. “Creative” once more is not used in a fun manner like we use it today; King uses it more seriously to describe nouns in a manner that signifies progress, literally, “creation.”

One of the things I have observed over the past few days is this renewed effort to be “creative.” People, in these tough times, want to work together to solve the myriad set of problems facing us. Yes, much of the reason behind this desire may have something to do with the election and inauguration of President Obama. But King’s brand of “creativity” demands more than one servant leader. If we Americans have learned anything from King’s message, it is that times of trouble and suffering is when we should be finding our own creativity — the ability to create something out of very little. This is just one more link between King’s message and the celebration of Obama’s election played out over the last couple months, but I believe it’s an important one.

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