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Honoring Dr. King

January 17, 2011

On the 25th anniversary of the first observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday, I invite you to take some time to watch, read, and listen to some of the words of Dr. King.

Our collective memories of King are often sanitized and saccharine; we remember the optimism of the latter part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but often forget that he also made scathing critiques of the U.S. government, major corporations that exploited black labor, the more violent side of the civil rights/Black Power movement.  We remember King as a champion for civil rights, but forget that he also fought mightily for human rights, economic justice, and the end of the Vietnam War. Watching, listening to, and reading King’s words gives you a glimpse into both the rhetorical genius and the truly revolutionary ideas of this great man. Many of his words still ring true today, which is both indicative of his prescience and of the work we have left to do as a nation.

“I Have a Dream”

The most famous of King’s speeches is his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.   He spoke to a crowd of at least 200,000 people who had gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The latter half of the speech, where King creates a strong narrative of his optimistic dream for the future of race relations and justice in the nation, is most famous.  (It was also apparently extemporaneous.  It was not included in King’s prepared speech manuscript; drawing on the energy of the crowd and on themes he had explored in earlier speeches, King seems to have ad-libbed this most famous part of the speech.)  Often forgotten–but incredibly important–is the first half of the speech, where King condemns the the United States’ failure to follow through on the promise of its founding documents.

Text of “I Have a Dream” Speech


“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”

Perhaps King’s least-known speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” was delivered on April 4, 1967–exactly a year to the day before King was assassinated–at Riverside Church in New York City to an assembly of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV).   Going against the wishes of many other leaders of the civil rights movement, who believed that King should focus only on civil rights, and creating tension with his white allies in government  (including President Lyndon Johnson), King chose to speak out against the Vietnam War because he believed that it was his moral duty to “break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”
(Excerpt from speech)

Text and Audio of “A Time to Break Silence”


“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

Delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was King’s last and perhaps most moving speech.  King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  In the speech, King wove a rich narrative, traveling through history to remind his followers that  they were the chosen people, and that nonviolence was the only righteous and effective method for reaching the “promised land” of racial justice and equality.   Seemingly predicting his own death, King presciently told his audience:

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!


Text of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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