Originally published January 21, 2019
Today, Americans celebrate the legacy and work of one of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yes, Dr. King had a dream that included the end of U.S. apartheid. However, King’s dream also transcended the vision that “little black boys and little black girls would join hands with little white boys and little white girls…” King dreamed of an organized global effort to eliminate poverty through nonviolent struggle. He dreamed of the end of war.
King dreamed of an organized global effort to eliminate poverty through nonviolent struggle. He dreamed of the end of war.
King spoke about these parts of his dream often, and yet so many people are unfamiliar with these very public aspirations of his movement goals. King would come to acknowledge that people had somehow missed the point of his activism in his famous speech against the war in Vietnam:
“As I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
The version of Dr. King that many of us have come to know has been tamed—stripped of his radical content. This is why the most important thing that we can do to honor his memory is to allow King to speak for himself. Here, I give you five important things Dr. King said that everyone should hear (click each title to view a video clip).
Why this speech is important: Just after the successes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King stirs his congregation to continue to wage nonviolent struggle for the end of Jim Crow. This is important because King’s commitment to active, nonviolent confrontation is often lost in translation.
Key quote: “So don’t go out this morning with any illusions…Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil. The bus protest is just the beginning…It would be fortunate if the people in power had sense enough to go on and give up, but they don’t do it like that. It is not done voluntarily, but it is done through the pressure that comes about from people who are oppressed.”
Why this speech is important: This obvious reason this speech is important is because it’s the most famous and enduring of all of King’s speeches. However, it’s also important because it’s the one where his words are most decontextualized. In remembering the last section of this speech, the dream portion, the rest of King’s message has been obscured. It’s time we became familiar with the entirety of his message that day.
Key quote: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…”
Why this letter is important: Many white pastors opposed King’s work. This letter brilliantly sets a theological and philosophical framework for King’s nonviolent revolutionary activity. King also makes a powerful statement about how people that are not racially hostile can help to uphold a racist system—a message that is still relevant today.
Key quote: “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Why this speech is important: In this speech, given at Stanford University as he was gearing up for the Poor People’s Campaign, King gives a sobering analysis of the problem of racism in the U.S. This is one of his most important speeches because King identifies racism as having “worsened” by 1967, even considering the major victories of the Civil Rights Movement. King also addresses riots, the black power movement, the enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and the inseparable link between racial injustice and poverty. Just listening to this speech alone provides a much deeper understanding of the way that King taught.
Key quote: “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot…nobody else in this country has lifted himself by their own bootstraps alone, so why expect the black man to do it?”
Why this interview is important: King is asked about his famous dream…and his answer would surprise many.
Key quote: “I must say that in many ways that dream has become a nightmare…I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months, I’ve done a lot of soul searching and had some agonizing moments. ”
Today, spend some time listening to what Dr. King actually had to say, instead of just the sound bites.
Andre Henry is the Program Manager of the Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action and author of All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Penguin Random House, 2022). He holds a Master of Arts in Theology with an emphasis in Biblical Languages from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Science in Practical Theology from Southeastern University.