Dr. King’s speeches have particular resonance today amid a year of sickness and death, Black Lives Matter protests and the storming of the Capitol.
He lived and died in a time of tumult and a racial awakening, so perhaps it is no surprise that the 35th national celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday has particular resonance amid one of the most traumatic seasons in memory: A raging pandemic. Protest and civil unrest after the killing of Black people by the police. A momentous election. And an insurrection.
Even the title of his final book — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — seems ripped from today’s headlines.
“I think it’s still an unanswered question,” said Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, referring to the title of Dr. King’s book.
“I think the most important word in that question is ‘we’ — who are we, and until you figure that out, it’s very hard to tell where we are going,” said Dr. Carson, who is also the founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, which is publishing a collection of Dr. King’s papers.
Amid the change and upheaval, the words of Dr. King, both those celebrated and the less familiar, feel more urgent than perhaps ever before, both as a guide and a warning. From oft-quoted speeches to the words he never had a chance to deliver before his assassination, Dr. King talked about his vision of a just world, about the power of peaceful protests, and about disruption as the language of the unseen and the unheard.
We asked Dr. Carson and others from across the country to choose words from Dr. King and reflect on how they resonate today. Here’s what they had to say.
“Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
— from the last speech given by Dr. King, on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Dr. King’s words spoke to the daunting challenge that civil rights leaders faced helping the poor and marginalized. He drew a parallel to today’s challenges of systemic racism, ecological devastation and a lack of access to health care.
The election of a Democratic president, he said, is no reason to slow down.
“It’s not enough to have an election and put new people into office,” Dr. Barber said. “We must push and continue to push for the kind of public policy that really establishes justice.”
“We really must now go about the business of lifting up those who are poor and those without health care,” he added. “That’s the only way we can heal the nation — we have to heal the body.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
— from Dr. King’s speech at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.
Connie Field said Dr. King’s quote had guided much of her work as an award-winning documentary filmmaker.
“Dr. King presented a vision of an equal, multiracial society,” she said. “He presented a vision of economic equality. And he presented a vision of a political struggle that’s nonviolent. Those are three things that we can all try to live by and strive for today.”
She added: “What’s going on in the United States, what we witnessed on Jan. 6, all has to do with a backlash to the fact that our world is changing. It’s going on here in America; it’s going on in Europe. We’re becoming a more intertwined world, a more multicultural world. That’s the trajectory of history, and there’s no going back on that. That quote completely underscores everything I’m talking about — a just world is an equal world, equal no matter what our race is.”
“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
— from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
Bernard Lafayette, 80, recalled the words from the “I Have a Dream” speech as a reminder that the turmoil the country is witnessing today “is not the way things have to be, and it’s not something we have to accept,” but should be understood as another step on the long journey that Dr. King described, with each shift connected to the events that precede it.
The violence at the Capitol, he said, reflected the fear from some members of our society that they were losing political power.
“You have to ask the question, ‘What are these people afraid of?’ Well, they are afraid they would lose power, they would lose control and the election in Georgia exacerbated that,” he said. “These fears that are being perpetrated, they’re really false fears, because no one is going to take anything away from them.”
“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.”
— from Dr. King speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated.
Rutha Mae Harris, 80, of Albany, Ga., said she believed Dr. King’s speeches often warned of the kind of conflict that unfolded in Washington on Jan. 6. Ms. Harris, who marched with Dr. King during the civil rights era, recalled, in particular, the famous speech he gave in Memphis a day before he was killed.
“With the rhetoric of Trump, I myself knew that something would happen,” she said. “This had been building up for four years.” She said Dr. King was a man of vision, but that the vision captured the darkness as well as the light. She noted, “He said, ‘I might not get there with you,’ and, of course, you can read in between the lines.”
“Why America May Go to Hell”
— title of a sermon that Dr. King had planned to deliver at his church on Sunday, April 7, 1968.
For the Rev. Amos C. Brown, the pastor of Third Baptist Church, a historically Black church in San Francisco founded in 1852, the words of Dr. King that come to mind this year are the ones he never had a chance to speak.
When he was assassinated, Dr. King had been planning to give a sermon, he said, called “Why America May Go to Hell.” In the sermon, Dr. King planned to warn that the country needed to use its vast resources to end poverty, and to offer all of God’s children the necessities of life.
The hell that Dr. King stood against is still deeply embedded in America today, said Mr. Brown, who is attending the inauguration as a guest of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (who attends his church).
“We are about to fall over the precipice into, figuratively speaking, hell in this nation — sure, we ought to be concerned about what’s going on now,” he said, referring to the attack on the Capitol. “But people are just now beginning to experience what Black folk have gone through since the Atlantic slave trade began. Hell.”
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
— from Dr. King’s speech in St. Louis on March 22, 1964.
For Antwan T. Lang, a member of the Chatham County Board of Elections in Savannah, Ga., Dr. King’s words meant we cannot be afraid to learn from one another and understand our differences and similarities.
“My hope is that one day white America will understand that we harvest no hate, but we want to be seen not as a Black man, Black entrepreneur, Black superintendent, Black doctor, Black lawyer, Black teacher, Black insurance agent, Black funeral director, but as a human being wanting to freely be ourselves without having to walk on eggshells in fear of becoming a statistic,” he said.
“It is clear to me that our protest and our plea to America is that we want to be free, to simply be a human being with real feelings, emotions, dreams and goals,” Mr. Lang said, “to be able to live long enough to accomplish those goals, dreams and ambitions.”
“Oh no, Brother Gray. This is no ploy at all. If we are to succeed, I am now convinced that an absolutely nonviolent method must be ours amid the vast hostilities we face.”
— Dr. King’s response in 1955 to a suggestion that his nonviolence tactics were for attention.
Fred D. Gray was the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the Montgomery Improvement Association during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the event that inaugurated the 20th century’s civil rights movement. The quote, found in Mr. Gray’s account of that battle, “Bus Ride to Justice,” was Dr. King’s response to a suggestion that his commitment to nonviolence was a ploy to gain attention in the press.
“I became a lawyer so I could use the law for the purpose of destroying every act of segregation that I could find,” Mr. Gray said. “There were other people whose roles were to make speeches, and others who demonstrated, but you had to put it all together and do it in a nonviolent fashion.”
Regarding the protests over the past year against killings of unarmed African-Americans by police officers, Mr. Gray said: “I think we’re going to have to go back to what Martin said about nonviolence and social change. All the things that Dr. King did, all the things we did in the Montgomery bus boycott were to get rid of racism and inequality. We were able to do a little bit, but not do it all.”