More than four decades have passed since the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination
in 1968. In the following years, King has been turned into a commodity of sorts, his image
used to hawk all sorts of merchandise
and his complex messages on social justice reduced to sound bites. Moreover, while King authored a number of speeches, sermons and other writings, the public is largely familiar with just a few—namely his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s lesser-known speeches reveal a man who deeply pondered issues of social justice, international relations, war and morality. Much of what King contemplated in his rhetoric remains relevant in the 21st century. Get a deeper understanding of what Martin Luther King Jr.
stood for with these excerpts from his writings.
Because of his extraordinary impact on the civil rights movement
, it’s easy to forget that King was a minister as well as an activist. In his 1954 speech “Rediscovering Lost Values,” King explores the reasons people fail to live lives of integrity. In the speech he discusses the ways science and war have influenced humanity and how people have abandoned their sense of ethics by taking on a relativistic mindset. “The first thing is that we have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic,” King said. “…Most people can’t stand up for their convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it. See, everybody’s not doing it, so it must be wrong. And since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what’s right. But I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it’s wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong. and it always will be wrong.”
In his “Lost Values” sermon King also discussed atheism describing practical atheism much more sinister as theoretical atheism. He remarked that the church attracts scores of people who pay lip service to God but live their lives as if God doesn’t exist. “And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t,” King said. “We say with our mouths that we believe in him, but we live with our lives like he never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion. That’s a dangerous type of atheism.”
In May 1963, King gave a speech called “Keep on Moving” at St. Luke’s Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. At this time, police had arrested hundreds of civil rights activists for protesting segregation, but King strove to inspire them to continue fighting. He said jail time was worth it if it meant the passing of civil rights legislation. “Never in the history of this nation have so many people been arrested, for the cause of freedom and human dignity,” King said. “You know there are approximately 2,500 people in jail right now. Now let me say this. The thing that we are challenged to do is to keep this movement moving. There is power in unity and there is power in numbers. As long us we keep moving like we are moving, the power structure of Birmingham will have to give in.”
Martin Luther King
won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Upon receiving the honor, he delivered a speech that connected the plight of African American to that of people across the globe. He also emphasized the strategy of nonviolence to achieve social change. “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood,” King said. “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
In April 1967, King delivered an address called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City in which he expressed his disapproval of the Vietnam War
. He also discussed his dismay that people thought that a civil rights activist such as himself should stay out of the anti-war movement. King viewed the movement for peace and the struggle for civil rights as interconnected. He said he opposed the war, in part, because war diverted energy away from helping the poor. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” King said. “…This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Just a day before his assassination, King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, to advocate for the rights of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. The speech is eerie in the sense that King referred to his own mortality several times throughout it. He thanked God for allowing him to live in the middle of the 20th century as revolutions in the United States and worldwide occurred. But King made sure to stress the circumstances of African Americans, arguing that “in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. …It's all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”