Reclaiming King: Five Speeches (That Aren’t the Dream Speech)

It’s almost gotten to the point where I dread Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday. The antiseptic whitewashing of his words and legacy have essentially been completed in the almost 50 years since his death, and it is almost guaranteed that today we’ll see people who are part of the machine of marginalization of poor folks and people of color quoting King even as they actively trample people. A major part of the whitewashing of King’s legacy has been a fixation with the “I Have a Dream Speech,” perhaps his most soaring oratory, but also his most mainstream-friendly. That speech has been perverted to great effect, used to uphold respectability, play a charade of “color-blindness,” and even chide black people for their own plight.

It is impossible to reconcile these sentiments with the truth of King, who was a radical considered dangerous enough to be surveilled at the highest levels of government, and who was assassinated by a world fearful of his nonviolence. Those reactions are consistent with what King really meant: he promoted an uprising, bloodless as it may be, that would have been as threatening to the traditional power structures of the country as socialism or a new Revolution. He was a dreamer, yes, but also a conflicted, pained, angry, sometimes disillusioned and sarcastic man searching for truth.

I thought it might be useful to dig through King’s oratory history to really outline just how radical he was. This brief snippet of his body of speeches focuses on the last five years of his life, because that’s where I think we truly see both King’s highs and his lows, the true soul-searching and questioning that King expressed.

DON’T SLEEP THROUGH THE REVOLUTION-1966 Address to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Regrettably, a good video of this speech isn’t available. But if you’ve ever enjoyed King’s famous “Mountaintop Speech,” this is a necessary precursor. King was a religious leader, but he also has a strong history (also approached in his “Letters from Birmingham Jail”) of strongly chastising the racism of the church and the reluctance of white religious moderates and clergy to protect fellow Black Christians. This address also features King at his most nuanced following the Long Hot Summers of black riots and provides a counterpoint to the idea that King condemned riots with the same vigor many attribute to him. Excerpt below: full version here.

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. The Negro is freer in 1966, but he is not yet free. The Negro knows more dignity today than he has known in any period of his history in this country, but he is not yet equal. There still are stubborn, difficult problems to deal with all over the country. I’m appalled that some people feel that the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill with ten titles and a voting rights bill. Over and over again people ask, what else do you want? They feel that everything is all right. Well, let them look around our big cities. I can mention one where we’re working now, not to say that it’s the worst city in the United States, but just to reveal the problem that we face.

Take a city like Chicago; it’s a prototype of all our major urban ghettos. There we find that 90 per cent of the Negro children of Chicago are in school with 92 per cent children of their own race, which means that the schools are almost 100 per cent segregated. Facilities are inadequate in all of the ghetto schools. Chicago spends approximately $266 per pupil in the predominantly Negro schools, when $368 are spent in the predominantly white schools. In the suburbs it spends as much as $780 per pupil. This is a very real problem. Then in the area of housing it is estimated that between 36 and 49 per cent of the Negro families of Chicago live in deteriorated housing conditions. Ninety seven per cent of the Negro families of Chicago live in what we refer to sociologically as the ghetto, that is 97 per cent of the Negroes live only with Negroes. They are isolated from the mainstream, the total life of the community. In the economic area, the problem is even more serious. Chicago has one of the lowest rates of unemployment of any major city in the United States. It’s 2.6 per cent, but when you go to the Negro community, the unemployment rate, which includes only People who once had jobs, is about 10 per cent. If you include those who have never held jobs, about 13 per cent of the Negro labor force is unemployed. If the whole of Chicago confronted in unemployment what the Negro is confronting there would be a staggering depression, worse than any this country has ever known. So the Negro in his own life is confronting a major depression.

This is true of every major city in the United States. While there is great affluence all around there still stubborn depths of poverty, deprivation and despair. The average white high school drop-out in Chicago earns more than the average Negro college graduate. Again, this is true in cities all over the country. These are stubborn, difficult problems, and yet they are problems that must be tackled, for I need not remind you of the dangers inherent therein. There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of individuals within that society who feel that they have no stake in it, who feel that they have nothing to lose. These are the people who will riot, these are the people who will turn their ears from pleas for non-violence. For the health of our nation, these problems must be solved. In the areas of housing, schooling, and employment there is still a great deal that must be done. We’ve come a long, long way; we still have a long, long way to go and action programs are necessary. I’ve heard it said that the day of demonstrations is over; this is something that we hear a great deal. Well, I’m sorry that I can’t agree with that. I wish that I could say the day of demonstrations is over, but as long as these problems are with us, it will be necessary to demonstrate in order to call attention to them. I’m not saying that a demonstration is going to solve the problem of poverty, the problem of housing, the problems that we face in the schools. It’s going to take something much more than a demonstration, but at least the demonstration calls attention to it; at least the demonstration creates a kind of constructive crisis that causes a community to see the problem and causes a community to begin moving toward the point of acting on it. The church must support this kind of demonstration. As the days unfold, I’m sure that we will need this more.

FAMILY PLANNING-A SPECIAL AND URGENT CONCERN-1966 Address to Planned Parenthood

Well, well well. Did you know that Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King supported Planned Parenthood? King received an award from Planned Parenthood and accepted with this speech–essentially an endorsement of the program. This speech was actually delivered by Mrs. King after Dr. King had a change of plans, and while it does not specifically mention abortion, it is clear that this acceptance speech was a pretty ringing endorsement. Full text here.

Some commentators point out that with present birth rates it will not be long before Negroes are a majority in many of the major cities of the nation. As a consequence, they can be expected to take political control, and many people are apprehensive at this prospect. Negroes do not seek political control by this means. They seek only what they are entitled to and do not wish for domination purchased at the cost of human misery. Negroes were once bred by slave owners to be sold as merchandise. They do not welcome any solution which involves population breeding as a weapon. They are instinctively sympathetic to all who offer methods that will improve their lives and offer them fair opportunity to develop and advance as all other people in our society.

For these reasons we are natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.

For these constructive movements we are prepared to give our energies and consistent support; because in the need for family planning, Negro and white have a common bond; and together we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute – the human race.

WHY I AM OPPOSED TO THE WAR IN VIETNAM-1967 Address to Riverside Church in New York

Did you know that MLK won a Grammy? In 1971, he was awarded the honor posthumously, winning Best Spoken Word Album for this 1967 speech. King is mostly known for his words on race, but a holistic reading of King shows that his entire worldview, including his pacifism, was rooted in a general belief in equality across all aspects of society–to the point where he was often accused of leaning towards socialism. And this was King at his most controversial, condemning the American military-industrial complex and the entirety of its foreign policy. Would conservative commentators today be so quick to quote his belief that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”? Transcript here.

UNFULFILLED DREAMS-1968 Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church

There’s something special and eerie about listening to the sermons and speeches King made in the year of his death. I think you find a man who is incredibly world-weary and frustrated, faced with the truth that the beast of American is bigger than even he could fathom. He was also faced with personal problems and failings, death threats, and what appeared to be a creeping obsession with death. The title of the sermon gives away that it’s a sort of inversion of King’s most famous speech. Transcript here.

THE MOUNTAINTOP SPEECH-1968 Address to Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee

This speech is well known for its status as King’s death shroud, the last few minutes where he seems to be starting directly at the imminent prospect of his death. But to me it’s always been the other 20 minutes of that speech that have proven the most chilling and stirring. Mortality is evident throughout the speech, with King pondering his life and body of work, but there is also the sense that King was laying down the groundwork for the next chapter of his fight. The Poor People’s Campaign was part of King’s late-life turn towards a more and more expansive view of race and inequality, and he had even begun addressing environmental and labor injustice in Chicago and Memphis. In this speech I see a leader faced with his own demise attempting to spell out a road map for taking the fight to the next level. Transcript here.
About the Authors:
Published by fivefifths
Vann R. Newkirk II (fivefifths) is Co-Chief Scribe at Seven Scribes, a writer at Daily Kos, a fiction writer, blogger, futurist, and activist. Vann is currently working on a science-fiction novel and short story series and resides in Silver Spring, MD. Find him napping on a bus near you. View all posts by fivefifths

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