Sunday, January 15, 2023 is the anniversary of the birth of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1929. Monday is the federal holiday recognizing his contributions to the struggle for racial equality and social justice in the United States. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated on April 4, 1068 in Memphis, Tennessee where he was supporting a strike by sanitation workers.
On May 18, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida. In this speech, King urged people, “Don't Sleep Through the Revolution.” As with many of Dr. King’s speeches, it could have been delivered today. In recognition of Dr. King’s legacy, I am posting excerpts from the speech. I hope teachers can use these excerpts in lessons this week.
I'm sure that each of you has read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle. One thing that we usually remember about the story of Rip Van Winkle is that he slept twenty years. But there is another point in that story which is almost always completely overlooked: it is the sign on the inn of the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountains for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was amazed, he was completely lost. He knew not who he was. This incident reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountains a revolution was taking place in the world, that would alter the face of human history. Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep.
One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. And there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our world today. We see it in other nations in the demise of colonialism. We see it in our own nation, in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination, and as we notice this struggle we are aware of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our midst . . .
The great question is, what do we do when we find ourselves in such a period?
How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees thousands sleeping on the sidewalks at night? . . .
We must make it clear that segregation, whether it's in the public schools, in housing, or in recreational facilities, or in the church itself, is morally wrong and sinful. It is not only sociologically untenable, or politically unsound, or merely economically unwise, it is morally wrong and sinful . . .
We must get rid of the notion once and for all that there are superior and inferior races. It is out of this notion that the whole doctrine of white supremacy came into being . . . It's a strange notion that has made for a great deal of strife and suffering. Both the academic world and the disciplines of science have refuted this idea . . .
To remain awake through this social revolution . . . [we] must engage in strong action programs to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. It is necessary to get rid of one or two myths if we're really going to engage in this kind of action program. One is the notion that legislation is not effective in bringing about the changes that we need in human relations. This argument says that you've got to change the heart in order to solve the problem; that you can't change the heart through legislation . . . It may be true that you can't legislate integration but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men . . .
A second myth that we must deal with is that of exaggerated progress. Certainly we have made progress in race relations. And I think we can all glory that things are better today than they were ten years ago or even three years ago. We should be proud of the steps we've made to rid our nation of this great evil of racial segregation and discrimination. On the other hand, we must realize the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower . . .
I have not despaired of the future. I believe firmly that we can solve this problem. I know that there are still difficult days ahead. And they are days of glorious opportunity. Our goal for America is freedom.