As inspirational as the I Have a Dream speech and the March on Washington were, there was so much more to the man and his work. Dr. King fought for Civil Rights, yes, but he also fought to end poverty for all Americans, regardless of race, and to end war. He was a pacifist, a word in this country too often equated with cowardice. Far from being cowardly, the man faced violent opposition - beatings, arrest, the bombing of his own home, constant threats and eventual murder - and not only refused to respond in kind, but refused to be intimidated. He didn’t become embittered as a result of the bigotry and violence he faced. He confronted hatred with love and the belief that if decent people continued to fight for justice, eventually, justice would prevail. He had the integrity to not only preach the gospel, but to practice what he preached.
I was born fifteen years after Dr. King was murdered. I remember being told of the I Have a Dream speech in school, and watching clips of it on television. We also discussed the Montgomery Bus Boycott and desegregation; but there was no mention of his work to end poverty or his even more controversial opposition to the Vietnam War. Many of his most passionate (albeit, for some in our society uncomfortable and inconvenient) speeches have been largely relegated to the dustbin of history. He held a mirror up to American society, allowing us to see ourselves not as we wished to be, not as we imagined ourselves to be, but as we truly were. Many Americans clearly didn’t like what they saw.
Here is Dr. King, in his own words, culled from speeches and interviews he gave during the 1950s and 60s. Most of what he had to say is (sadly) as relevant today as it was forty to fifty years ago.
Excerpt from the sermon Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL on Nov. 17, 1957.
The audio and a full transcript of this sermon can be found here. The sermon is worth reading in its entirety, particularly the part where he addresses the suggestion that this is an impractical injunction.
Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls "the image of God," you begin to love him...
This is the only way. And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals...It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. It is an eternal reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I'm foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed…
From one of Dr. King’s first televised interviews (1957). He discusses the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the method of non-violent resistance.
King: After deciding to boycott the buses, we decided that the movement needed some discipline and dignity. That a boycott in and of itself could be very dangerous, if it didn’t have some guidance. That after thinking through this, the emphasis on Christian love came into being, along with the whole Gandhian technique of non-violent resistance…
Well, I think if it stops with the boycott, and it doesn’t have the element of love and non-violent resistance, it is opposed to the Christian religion. I faced this problem at a very early stage in the whole struggle. How could this method be reconciled with the Christian faith? And at points I started thinking that this was a method used by persons at points who – who – were seeking to defy the law of the land. And all of these things came to my mind. And then I reasoned that what we were actually doing was not exactly working on a negative, trying to put a company out of business – that was never our aim. We were not seeking to put the bus company out of business, but to put justice in business. We were dealing with a positive thing.
And I also reasoned that what we were doing turned out to be a very Christian act, because this system of segregation tends to set up false standards, and it scars the personality of the individuals of both races. And from that I came to see that the longer we continue to accept it, without opposing it in some form, we fail to be our brother’s keeper. Because as long as we sit at the back of the bus it tends to give the Negro a false sense of inferiority; and so long as white persons sit at the front of the bus only, it tends to give them a false sense of superiority. And I felt that some leavening reality should come into being, so men would live together as brothers, and forget about distinctions. And that became, to my mind, a very moral element, and I came to see that what we were doing was actually massive non-cooperation, and not so much a boycott.
Interviewer: Then you feel, really, that actually an acceptance of what you regard as evil is in essence a promotion of evil? Is that – is that - am I correct in understanding this was your basic philosophical thinking on this topic?
King: Very definitely. I think it is just as bad to passively accept evil as it is to inflict it.
Excerpt from the speech "Our God Is Marching On! (How Long? Not Long!)" - Martin Luther King in Montgomery, AL, Mar. 25, 1965. In the speech he quotes at length the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by abolitionist and feminist, Julia Ward Howe.
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" Somebody's asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men..." I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future. And, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet! Our God is marching on."
His truth is marching on.
Excerpt from the Speech "Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam", delivered on April 30, 1967. One of his most passionate and controversial speeches, in it he denounces the war and America's failure to address poverty and racism, calling for a "revolution of values".
I've chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam today because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal...
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program...Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube...
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; but they ask and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems...and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government...
America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can't do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement...The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation...Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, "Be non-violent toward Bull Connor"...There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, "Be non-violent toward Jim Clark," but will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children." There's something wrong with that press! ...
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered...
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation...The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“Sir, You Don’t Know Me.” Martin Luther King, Jr. - Jan 14, 1968 – Santa Rita, CA
Dr. King had gone to California to visit men and women arrested for protesting the war in Vietnam. During the speech he clearly equates the Peace Movement with the Civil Rights movement. He discusses the moral and financial cost of the war, the “dangerous trends” he sees (i.e., the government’s efforts to silence dissent), and the qualities of a true leader. Note: For some reason the video of this speech won't imbed. You can find it at Youtube here.
They have supported us in a very real way, in our struggle for civil rights, our struggle for freedom and human dignity all across the South. And I decided that in a way, or rather as an expression of my appreciation for what they are doing for the peace movement, and for what they have done for the civil rights movement, I would take time out of my schedule to come out to see them, to visit them, and let them know that they have our absolute support. And I might say that I see these two struggles as one struggle. There can be no justice without peace. And there can be no peace without justice.
Now people ask me from time-to-time, “Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?” And they go on to say the two issues are not to be mixed. And my only answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice in indivisible; and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of might, with all of my energy, and with all of action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.
Now let me say this. I see some very dangerous trends developing in our country - trends of oppression, and repression, and suppression. And I see a definite move on the part of the government to go all out now to silence dissenters and to try to crush the draft resistance movement. Now we cannot allow this to happen. We’ve got to make it clear – we’ve got to make it clear that to indict a Dr. Spock, or to indict a Bill Coffin and the other courageous souls that have been indicted, will mean indicting all of us if they think that this draft resistance movement is going to be stopped. And let us continue to work passionately and unrelentingly to end this cruel and senseless war in Vietnam. I don’t have to go through all of the things that this war is doing to corrode the values of our nation. Suffice it to say that the war in Vietnam has all but torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the Military-Industrial Complex of our nation. It has exacerbated the tensions between continents and races. The war in Vietnam has placed our country in the position of being against the self-determination of the Vietnamese people. And then it has played havoc with our domestic destinies. And I can never forget the fact that we spend about five hundred thousand dollars to kill every enemy soldier in Vietnam, and we spend only about fifty-three dollars a year for every individual who is categorized as poverty stricken in our so-called war against poverty, which isn’t even a good skirmish against poverty. And I say that there is a great need for a revolution of values. And I say to you in conclusion – and I say to you in conclusion that we must continue to stand up, and we must continue to follow the dictates of our conscience, even if that means breaking unjust laws.
Henry David Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And I do not plan to cooperate with evil at any point. Somebody said to me, not too long ago, “Uh, Dr. King don't you think you are hurting your leadership by taking a stand against the war in Vietnam. Aren't people who once respected you will lose respect for you, and aren't you hurting the budget of your organization.” And I had to look at that person and say, “I'm sorry, Sir, you don't know me…” [tape garbled]
Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but he’s a molder of consensus. And on some positions cowardice asks the question "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question "Is it politic?" Vanity asks the question "Is it popular?" But conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. And that is where I stand today, and that is where I hope you will continue to stand. So that we can speed up the day when justice will roll down like water all over the world, and righteousness like a might stream; and we will speed up the day when men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; and nations will not rise up against nations, neither will they study war anymore. And I close by saying, as we sing it in the old Negro spiritual - I ain’t gonna study war no more.
From a speech given during Martin Luther King's first trip to Memphis in March 1968, speaking before striking sanitation workers. The quoted part of his speech begins at about [4:49]. From the documentary "I Am a Man: Dr. King & the Memphis Sanitation Strike." Produced by American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. Of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say this to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth...
You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.
Excerpt from the "Mountaintop Speech," Dr. King's final speech, delivered in Memphis on Apr. 3, 1968 at Mason Temple.
But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
And they were telling me, now it doesn't matter now. It really doesn't matter what happens now…
I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Now I suggest we follow Dr. King's example and do something useful. The Pakistanis need our help and so does Mr. Ahmed Sharif (the New York hate-crime victim). Details about how you can help can be found here:
Action Item: The Stabbed NYC Taxi Driver Needs Our Help by Stef
Help Pakistan: Unimaginable Suffering, by Bubbanomics
One Month of Secret Suffering by Laughing Planet
Also, here are some other recent diaries discussing Dr. King:
Dear Glenn: MLK Jr. WAS a radical socialist! by the Red Phone is Ringing
MLK, Jr: Advocate for a Third Party by goinsouth
Edit: Thank you for rescuing the diary, Mem.
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