In one of those post-New Year’s attempts to inspire myself, I got a little carried away this year and read almost all of MLK’s speeches. On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, I’ve compiled the top three that I think are most relevant to America now.
1. How Long, Not Long (March 25, 1965. Montgomery, Ala.)
Speech summary: Given after successfully marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, this speech calls for an end to the poisonous “normalcy” that was undermining the Civil Rights efforts and declared that, despite victories in 1963, the fight wasn’t over.
Key quote: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
The speech now: I like that quote from this speech because although I am proud to be an American, my conscience is not clear. It shouldn’t be. We still live unsustainably, we’re fat, Guantanamo Bay is still open, and most significantly, our politicians are the most selfish and immature I’ve ever seen them, at the expense of the citizens. We’ve made progress since 1965, but we can hardly claim that we are at peace with ourselves.
2. Beyond Vietnam (April 4, 1967. New York City)
Speech summary: Although discouraged from doing so by fellow activists, King finally felt compelled to speak out against the war in Vietnam, for humanist and religious reasons.
Key quote: (King is quoting an unnamed Vietnamese)“It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
The speech now: We are one of the most conflict-prone nations in the past century. Even as we extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan, we continue to speak about a potential war with Iran. With every unpopular war, the value of our nation declines (literally) and, in my opinion, we actually endanger ourselves more.
3. I Have a Dream (August 28, 1963. Washington D.C.)
(I have to be honest. When I started this article, I was thinking I might pick another one of his speeches to be number one, you know, just to be controversial. But then I listened to the audio and got chills all over my body. My God, this is a good speech. In content, in delivery, in timing, and in history this is definitely the greatest speech I’ve ever heard. Click here for a link to the audio.)
Speech summary: This speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in front of 200,000 civil rights supporters. King called for racial equality and an end to the normalcy of discrimination all over the country. It is widely considered one of the key moments during the Civil Rights Movement.
Key quote: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."”
The speech now: Our country may be legally equal (unless you’re gay), but the statistics say otherwise. White households have 22 times more wealth than black households, and blacks continue to have higher unemployment and less education. Dr. King would definitely be proud of the progress we’ve made in America, in general, but I’m guessing he’d still say that we aren’t done, that our current “normalcy” is not adequate. And I bet he wouldn’t be happy about our continued discrimination against homosexuals.