Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we commemorate the man who braved far too many dangers for the equality of so many. The speech we hear over and over is the powerful one as King stood at the Lincoln Memorial before a sea of people proclaiming that he has a dream. Originally, the dream comment wasn’t even in the speech. It was singer Mahalia Jackson who encouraged King to incorporate it and the initial language may have come from 22-year-old Prathia Hall, who spoke of the dream in a speech at the smoldering remains of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1962.
But there were so many speeches and sermons that King made over the years that he fought for civil rights. These five are just as profound and an excellent way to celebrate Dr. King’s memory today.
1. Give Us The Ballot
Nothing is more vital today than the speech from MLK on the importance of voting rights. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act, the Chief Justice even declared that racism was no longer a problem. The key law that MLK and so many others fought for has now been stripped and voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression among people of color continues. This speech is a perfect way to renew the call for voting rights.
“Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights …
“Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law …
“Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will …
“Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy …
“Give us the ballot and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.”
2. Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam
After seeing debate after debate where the GOP seems hell bent on taking us into more costly wars in the Middle East, this speech should speak to Americans, reminding Americans of a time where we were overburdened by a costly war that we were guaranteed to lose.
“In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism….”
“Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced….”
“Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
3. Love your Enemies
On a November morning in 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King implored those that lined the pews to put love before hate. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, he said. “Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. ” Today, as we see so much hateful rhetoric in our politics, so much racism, so much xenophobia and so much blame, it takes a strong person, a wise person, to choose love. To love in spite of the anger, to love in spite of fear, to love in spite of words you would spend a lifetime opposing, takes a deep peace and understanding that is desperately needed in our world today.
“There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. 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. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”
4. Don’t Sleep Through The Revolution
In 1968, Dr. King stood in the pulpit of National Cathedral in Washington where he implored those in the pews not to sleep through the revolution occurring in our country. Those on the sidelines, ignorant of the march toward progress, will not solve the social problems of our time they’ll only help to stagnate them. True freedom can never be won when we aren’t there to fight for it. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long,” King said. “But it bends toward justice.”
“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. Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity, and so all over the world we see something of freedom explosion, and this reveals to us that we are in the midst of revolutionary times. An older order is passing away and a new order is coming into being.”
Here is another excerpt:
Here’s the full sermon:
5. Detroit Walk Toward Freedom
In June of 1963, the largest march for civil rights (at the time) took place in Detroit, but it was just a precursor the march on Washington that would eclipse it by more than double. This speech paved the way for that march and addressed the nature of change itself. King explained why change is so critical and that even those who say they want it still might be afraid when it happens. This speech was also the warm up for the “I Have a Dream” speech and it was almost as if he was testing out the language before the march on Washington.
“And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream […] I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers. I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters […] I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin… I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
BONUS: The Purpose of Education
This was not a speech but a column King wrote in his college newspaper. Education is the proven pathway from poverty, but it is also the guide that leads many from ignorance to understanding. Oppression does not stand when people are educated about their rights. Injustice cannot grow roots on the fertile ground of knowledge.
“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
“If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!”