Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is the most important speech of the 20th century. It is not a declaration of war. Nor is the speech a jeremiad prophesying an abject future for America, as so many books and news articles are nowadays. It is a truly profound meditation on the self-determination of a nation’s people to move toward social justice despite the difficulties inherent in such a struggle.
In this speech, King speaks of “creative protest,” “creative suffering,” and “redemption.” He speaks of an idealistic nation filled with people working very hard against injustice and repression in ways rarely seen in world history. The work of these protesters was effective precisely because of their counterintuitive methods born out of the idea “that unearned suffering is redemptive.” Martin Luther King, Jr. presents us with a speech that calls on the people to change a government through a militant (i.e., disciplined) struggle that nevertheless eschews violence. It is a speech for today. It is a speech for the 21st century.
There are so many moments in this speech that demand recognition, even careful consideration and study. Unfortunately, this highest example of American oratory is too-often reduced to the final few sentences that highlight the familiar refrain, “I have a dream.” This is an important part of the speech, for sure, but it is not the only important moment.
One of my favorites is when King states, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Here King brilliantly illustrates the sort of creative and disciplined thinking that motivated the movement for social justice in America. Here is the sort of creative and focused thinking that unabashedly acknowledges and calls out injustices without falling prey to unproductive cynicism. This is one of the moments that makes this speech great.
Another important moment is this one, which needs to be read at length:
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the highest plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
There is much education that needs to happen around King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as other speeches, sermons, and books he wrote. I often teach Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait in my African-American literature courses. Though my students are often aware that King wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, (a response to a “Statement by Alabama Clergymen”) as well as the “I Have a Dream” speech, they are often surprised he wrote several books. Why We Can’t Wait is a wonderful book because it gives context for “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as well as the 1963 march on Washington where “I Have A Dream” was delivered. My students love this book because it really helps them understand more fully what was going on in the times leading up to the march.
Students also enjoy contemplating the implications of his work, as King often challenges future generations to consider the significance of the movement for social justice. “One aspect of the civil-rights struggle that receives little attention is the contribution it makes to the whole society. The Negro in winning rights for himself produces substantial benefits for the nation” (Why We Can’t Wait). If only certain state legislatures, such as those of Texas and South Carolina, as well as others, understood this.
As I said before, King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when understood in its entirety, is a speech for our current time. His body of speeches, sermons, and books provide a useful set of philosophies and blueprints for advancing the struggle against racism, poverty, and injustice throughout the world to this day.
Martin Luther King’s 1967 Speech on “The Giant Triplets of Racism, Extreme Materialism, and Militarism”