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What Martin Luther King Jr. Said to Us

Martin Luther King Jr.

 
Martin Luther King Jr. in Davenport in April 1965.

January 2013


Following is a transcription of a tape recording of a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 28, 1965, at the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council's Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award banquet. Dr. King was the recipient of the Council's annual award.

Mr. Chairman, Lieutenant Governor Fulton, Mayor O'Brien, Monsignor Moore, Mr. Taney, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I need not pause to say how very delighted, and honored I am to be here tonight and to be a part of this auspicious occasion. I certainly want to express my deep and sincere gratitude to the Catholic Interracial Council of this community for bestowing upon me such a great honor, and I can assure you that this award is of inestimable value for the continuance of my humble efforts.

I want to join tonight with my fellow recipients of awards by saying that I consider this far more than an honor to me personally. I think in a real sense that in presenting this award you honor the hundreds and thousands, yea, even millions of people who are engaged in this mighty struggle for freedom and human dignity in this country.

Many of them you don't know; they are those anonymous, faceless individuals who are working tirelessly and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality. And I accept this award for those people, for those heroes who will never have their names in Who's Who and who may never be mentioned in the newspapers; but they are the real heroes of our struggle.

I think of many other things tonight, but I'd like to mention at least one that I think of in receiving this award. Many things have happened over the last few years to make our world a better world, and I think probably the most, certainly one of the most significant developments in the church community and Christendom, I should say, is the fact that the Christian family has been brought closer together. This is to the eternal credit of the great Pope John, who with a magnificent ecumenical spirit, brought new levels of understanding between all Christians.

I can say in a rather humorous vein that when a Catholic group can give an award to a fellow by the name of Martin Luther, things are getting better. But in all sincerity I think these developments are developments that we are all happy about.

I think the other thing is that the Civil Rights movement has given us a great opportunity to allow the ecumenical spirit to really flow forth. It has been marvelous indeed to see Protestants, Catholics and Jews working together in demonstrations and in communities all across the country to solve the problem of racial injustice. And I know as a result of this we are making strides, and we will continue to make strides in the future.
***

I WOULD LIKE to say in receiving this award a few words about the American dream, because this is what we are trying to do, this is what we are seeking to do in the Civil Rights struggle. This is what we are seeking to do in all of our efforts to make brotherhood a reality: we are trying to make the American dream a reality.

The substance of this dream is expressed in those sublime words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are all endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among, these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Now the first thing we notice in this great dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say "some men," it says "all men." It does not say "all white men," it says "all men" -which includes black men. It does not say "all Gentiles," it says "all men"—which includes Jews. It does not say "all Protestants," it says "all men"—which includes Catholics.

Then there is something else at the very heart of that dream which is ultimately one of the basic things that distinguishes our form of government from totalitarian regimes. It says in substance that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the State. In order to discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given.

Very seldom, if ever, in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and worth of human personality. This is a great dream, and it reminds us that every man is an heir of a legacy of dignity and worth.

Yet ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the noble principles of democracy, yet on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.

Indeed, slavery and racial segregation have been strange paradoxes in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal. But now, more than ever before, America is challenged to realize this dream; for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy, and the price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction, for the hour is late and, the clock of destiny is ticking. We must act now before it is too late.

***

AND SO I WOULD like to mention tonight some of the things that we as individuals, some of the things that we as Christians, some of the things that we as religious people must do in order to make the American dream a reality.

I'd like to start on the world scale by saying that if the American dream is to become a reality, we must have a concern about the larger world dream for peace and brotherhood. And so if we are to make this dream a reality we must have the world perspective. The world in which we live is geographically one. The great struggle taking place now is to make this world one in terms of brotherhood.

Now it is true that the geographical oneness of our age has come into being to a large extent as a result of modern man's scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains, and our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took days and even months. I think Bob Hope has adequately described this new jet age in which we live, and it isn't a common thing for a Baptist preacher to quote Bob Hope, but I think he has adequately described this jet age in which we live. He said it is an age in which it is possible to take a non-stop flight from Los Angeles, Calif., to New York City, a distance of about three thousand miles, and if on taking off in Los Angeles you develop hiccups, you will hic in Los Angeles and cup in New York City.

You know, it is possible because of the time difference to take a flight from Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday morning and arrive in Seattle, Wash. on the preceding Saturday night; and when your friends meet you at the airport and ask when you left Tokyo, you will have to say, "I left tomorrow."

Now this is a bit humorous; but I'm trying to laugh a basic fact into all of us and it is simply this, that through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, and now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make it a brotherhood. We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools. This is what we must see now. No individual can live alone today; no nation can live alone; we are all interdependent.

Some time ago Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience; it was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India and to meet and talk with hundreds and thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain meaningful to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen. But I say to you tonight, my friends, that there were those depressing moments: but how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than 600,000 sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no houses to go in; they have no beds to sleep in.

How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India's population of more than 400 million people, some 380 million make an annual income of less than $90 a year, and most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist?

As I beheld these conditions something within me cried out: "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" An answer came: "Oh no, because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation." And I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in our country to store surplus food, and I said to myself: "I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God's children in Asia and Africa and South America and in our own country who go to bed hungry at night.

All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated. Somehow we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, it affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be; and you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.

John Donne caught it some years ago and placed it in graphic terms: "No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Then he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." And the realization of this and the living out of this I believe will lead us on toward the realization of the American dream.

***

NOW TO PUT IT IN more specific terms, if America is to realize this great dream, we must reaffirm, in no uncertain terms, the essential immorality of racial segregation. It is not enough to say racial segregation is sociologically unsound, and it certainly is. It is not enough to say it is politically untenable, and It certainly is.

In the final analysis we must get rid of racial segregation because it is morally, wrong and sinful. We must reaffirm the fact that segregation, whether it is in Selma, Ala.; Atlanta, Ga.; Chicago or Davenport is a sin in the sight of almighty God, and it must be removed from the body politic before our democratic and moral health can be realized. And all of the great religions have said this.

I do not speak as a result of some pet convictions I have; I speak out of the inspiration that has come to me from great minds of the past and above all from Jesus Christ. And I speak as a result of the great insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Deeply rooted in that heritage is the idea that all human personality is significant. Segregation is wrong, to put it in the words of the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, because it substitutes an "I-It" relationship for the "I-Thou" relationship.

To use the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas, segregation is wrong because it is based on human laws that are out of harmony with the moral, the eternal, the natural laws of the universe.

Somewhere the great theologian, the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich said that sin is separation, and what is segregation but an existential expression of man's tragic estrangement, his terrible separation, his awful sinfulness? And so we must work passionately and unrelentingly all over this country to get rid of segregation because it is morally wrong.

Every man and every woman of good will must say in substance that we are through with racial segregation, now and henceforth and forevermore. This will make us a great nation.

***

NOW LET ME MOVE on to another point, because if this problem is to be solved, we must work not only in the ideational realm, but we must move out into the arena of action. It's wonderful to clarify ideas and say that segregation is wrong and that we must have a world perspective, but then we must move out of the area of social reform. If this problem is to be solved in this nation and in the world, we must develop massive action programs in order to make justice a reality.

I know there are always those people who fail to see that it is necessary to act in order to solve these problems, and they have the strange illusion that you can just sit down and wait on something and problems will work themselves out, but history is a long repudiation of that idea. If this problem is to be solved, we must develop massive action programs to do it. Now we have got to get rid of one or two myths that are disseminated constantly in our society if we are going to have the action programs necessary to make the American dream a reality.

One is what I refer to as the myth of time. This is the notion that only time can solve the problem, and there are those who say to the Negro and his allies in the white community: "Now don't push things, you ought to cool off and be nice and patient because only time can solve this problem, and if you will wait 100 to 200 years, time will work it out."

Well I think there is an answer to this myth, and it is that time is neutral: it can be used either constructively or destructively, and I say to you very honestly tonight, my friends, that I'm absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the forces committed to negative ends in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will and it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people who would bomb a church in Birmingham, Ala., but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social stagnation. We must help time and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right and this is the way we can get rid of a dangerous myth that is loose in our society.

Now the other notion that gets around is that legislation can't solve this problem. You've heard that - they've said to us that we must change the heart and legislation can't change the heart. Now I'm certainly with anybody who talks in terms of changing the heart. I happen to be a preacher and I'm in the heart-changing business. I believe firmly in the need for conversion and regeneration and the new birth. And I believe there is something, however much we hate to talk about it, called sin and original sin that pervades human nature, and so I think that we must all be concerned about changing the heart.

I would like to try to grapple with this myth because it is a dangerous myth also, the notion that legislation has no role to play in this period of social transition because it can't change the heart.

Now the answer that I would give to that is that it may be true that you can't legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me—and I think that this is pretty important also.

So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men, and when you change the habits of men, pretty soon hearts of men will begin to change and attitudes will begin to change. And I say this evening, now is the time for meaningful, creative, forthright, civil rights legislation to grapple with many of the problems that we still face.

I mention very briefly that at this present time there is a debate going on in Congress over the bill to guarantee the right to vote. We've been engaged in a struggle in Alabama; some of you have been there with us in that struggle You've been on the scene; you've been there and you've walked with us, and I'm sure all of you here with us tonight have been with us there in spirit.
In that movement, probably more than in any other movement in our country, we dramatize the indignities and the injustices which Negroes still face in many areas in the South in an attempt to register and vote. And so we know that there is a need for legislation to make it possible for Negroes to register and vote.

There is a debate going on and questions are being raised, and I submit that we know now enough about the fact that Negroes are denied the right to vote, and we need that bill now, and I don't think there needs to be a long debate in Congress. I don't think that Congress needs to get bogged down in the paralysis of analysis.

We all know that the Negro is denied the right to vote in Dallas County, Ala.; we all know that the Negroes are denied the right to vote in the state of Mississippi. This legislation is absolutely necessary.

We need legislation on a national scale, yet we need it on local, state levels to grapple with the problem of employment discrimination, to grapple with the problem of housing segregation and discrimination. These are necessities, if we are to make the American dream a reality.

***

NOW I'D LIKE TO mention beyond this that undergirding all of our work and undergirding all of our action, there must be something in line with the spirit of this award. I am still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity, and I accept this award tonight more determined than ever to commit myself to the fulfillment and to the realization of the philosophy of nonviolence and the philosophy of love.

If the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence in his struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

I still believe that violence creates many more social problems than it solves, that there is still a voice crying through the vista of time, saying to every potential Peter, "Put up your sword." History is replete with the bleached bones of nations; history is cluttered with the records of communities that failed to follow that command. And I can say there is another way, a way as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth, and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. There is another way, a way which says that it is possible to stand up against entrenched evil with all of your might, with all of the force of your soul and with the witness of your body and yet not stoop to hate and violence in the process - and I say hate because I think it is important that we come to see all over the world now that love will have the last word; hate is a tragic philosophy. It ends up destroying the hater as well as the hated.

Psychiatrists are telling us now that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious and many of the things that we see in terms of inner-conflict are rooted in hate. They are now saying love or perish, but it is wonderful to have a philosophy of struggle which says that it is possible to stand up against the evil system and yet not hate in the process.

So this is why in our best moments as we've struggled, however difficult the moment has been. We, when we were truly committed to non-violence, we were able to stand up before our most violent opponent and say in substance:

"We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering; we will meet your physical force with soul force, do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so bomb our homes and threaten our children and we will still love you. Throw us in jail, and as difficult as it is we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead, and difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, make it appear that we are not fit morally, culturally or otherwise for integration and we will still love you, but be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom; we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory."

This is a nonviolent message, and I believe that it is this message and it is this way that will lead us out of dark yesterdays and into bright tomorrows. It will help those of us who have been on the oppressed end of the old order to go into the new order, not with any desire to retaliate, but with the determination to forgive and move on to a positive future.

We will not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thereby subverting justice. We will not seek to substitute one tyranny for another. We will know that black supremacy is as dangerous and as evil as white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of brown men and black men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers, and every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.

And so with a strong action program, but ever standing up against the system, picketing when necessary, demonstrating when necessary, marching if necessary, boycotting in love if necessary, under girding all of this with a philosophy of nonviolence, I believe that we can build a new America and that we can bring the American dream into full realization.

This is a challenge for the future and this is a great opportunity for our nation and for all of the people who live in it. Let us all work together for this great goal and for this common cause. Let us realize that the problem is with us all over our country. No section of our nation can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood. We have our Alabamas and we have our Mississippis, with the glaring violence, the terrible expressions of man's inhumanity to man. But we must come to see that it is not enough to rise up with righteous indignation when a church is bombed in Mississippi, or when a Mrs. Liuzzo or a Rev. Reeb or a James Jackson are shot down in Selma, Ala. We must rise up with as much righteous indignation when a Negro cannot live in our neighborhood even if he has the money to buy a home there, when a Negro cannot get a job in our particular firm, when a Negro cannot join our professional, our academic societies, our fraternities, our sororities: in other words, there must be a divine discontent if this problem is to be solved.

There are certain technical words within every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology and the word is maladjusted. We all want to avoid being maladjusted; we want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic personalities.

But I must honestly say to you tonight that there are some things in our nation and in the world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted, and to which I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I must honestly say that I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will leave between 40 and 50 millions of our brothers and sisters right here in America perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. I never will be content until the least of these our brethren will have the basic necessities of life.

I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. The alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged Into the abyss of annihilation.

And so it may well be that our world is in dire need for a new organization, the international association for the advancement of creative maladjustment: men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half-slave and half-free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could etch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." As maladjusted as our Lord and Christ who could say, "Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that spitefully use you."

Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

***

MAY I SAY TO YOU that as I prepare to go back to the Deep South, to the dark and desolate moments of Alabama with all of its difficulties still ahead, I have faith in the future and I have faith in America. And I believe we're going to solve this problem. I believe that we are developing a coalition of conscience that will mobilize itself on a continuing basis to the point of bringing about a solution. I believe that somehow and in some way we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some of us will get scarred up a little; before the victory is won some more will be thrown into jail; before the victory is won some will be called bad names, misunderstood; some will be called Reds and Communists simply because they believe in the brotherhood of man.

Before the victory is won somebody else may have to face physical death. If physical death is the price some must pay to free their children from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.

Yes, we shall overcome; we are not afraid; the Lord will see us through. We shall overcome because the Arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: no lie can live forever.

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
Behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadows
Keeping watch above His own.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to speed up that glad and bright day when all of God's children all over this nation, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free al last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

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