Decades later, the Rev. Martin Luther King's words still resonate with Americans
COMPILED BY EDITORIAL BOARD
Monday, January 17, 2005
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is appropriately remembered as a brilliant orator, but anyone who appreciates good writing understands that oratory is a delivery vehicle for good writing. Since his death in 1968, those who appreciate powerful writing appreciate and recognize those speeches as classics in American literature. His words still paint a vivid picture of a dark age on which King shed light.
In spring 1963, King was jailed yet again for the cause that eventually cost him his life. While in the Birmingham, Ala., city jail, he penned a letter that has become a classic in civil rights literature.
'You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. I am sorry that (you) did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any city in this nation. For years now I have heard the word, "Wait!" I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park and . . . when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"
On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered a classic on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to people assembled for the March on Washington. The speech is known by its famous refrain, 'I have a dream.' But there was much more to that speech than those four words.
'And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. This is a portion of the speech he delivered in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, 1964.
'Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.
If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama, to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity.
This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new civil rights bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a superhighway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems."
Long before King's oratory captivated the nation, it worked on his congregation. His 'Birth of a New Nation' sermon was delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on April 7, 1957.
'That's the way it goes. There is no crown without a cross. I wish we could get to Easter without going to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go by Good Friday before we can get to Easter. That's the long story of freedom, isn't it?
"Before you get to Canaan, you've got a Red Sea to confront. You have a hardened heart of a pharaoh to confront. You have the prodigious hilltops of evil in the wilderness to confront. And, even when you get up to the Promised Land, you have giants in the land. The beautiful thing about it is that there are a few people who've been over in the land. They have spied enough to say, 'Even though the giants are there we can possess the land, because we got the internal fiber to stand up amid anything that we have to face.' "
Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair and Cynthia Diane Wesley were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963. King's eulogy at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church on Sept. 18, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., included these comments. A separate service was held for the fourth victim, Carole Robertson.
'These are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.
"They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
Four years after that most famous of King speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King took inventory of the work yet to be done. He delivered this speech at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Aug. 16, 1967, in Atlanta.
'Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.
"Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
"Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin.
"Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.
"Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
"Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, 'White Power!' . . . 'Black Power!' But everybody will talk about God's power and human power.
"Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again . . . have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of blood-thirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future."
We conclude with a chilling excerpt from King's last speech. He had traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to support striking sanitation workers. It was April 3, 1968. When he delivered this speech, King had less than 24 hours to live.
'I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow. Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.
But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — 'We want to be free.'
Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today . . . if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that he's allowed me to be in Memphis."