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King Defined by Rousing Speeches, Letters

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

His words continue to have relevance today

Beverly Corbell

Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.


Though he wrote five books and delivered up to 450 speeches a year, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is often defined by his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream” delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in the same year.


The words of America’s foremost civil rights leader stirred great emotions across the country and the world at the time, and are still so relevant even today. An excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech illustrates his commanding use of language to illustrate the racial divides and the hopes for progress, ending with its most well-known passage.


“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."




“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice

denied."      


Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his most famous

“I Have a Dream” speech during the March on

Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.


Although some of King’s language, like the use of “Negro” are now dated, and some justice and equality issues for black Americans have changed for the better, the racial divide in America is still stark. His words still carry a clear ring of truth today, and perhaps as never before.


Other speeches King gave may have been less well-known, but just as controversial and moving, like his “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence” speech on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City.


Although many of his advisors begged him not to give this speech about his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and President Lyndon Johnson stopped speaking to him afterward, King’s words echo today as the current escalation of conflict with Iran unfolds in the headlines.


"We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."


On March 25, 1965 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he delivered the speech “Our God is Marching On!” marking a triumphant end of the first phase of a modern civil rights movement and a successful fight for voting rights while showing his determination to continue the civil rights movement for other advancements of full equality.


"They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, 'We ain't going to let nobody turn us around.' "I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because 'truth crushed to earth will rise again.' How long? Not long, because 'no lie can live forever.' ... How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."





Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote five books and delivered up to 450 speeches a year during his short lifetime.







On July 4, 1965 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King delivered the sermon “The American Dream – A Nightmare?” about the need to give living wages to workers with menial jobs, an issue that certainly still rings true today. He talked about the dignity of all work, saying that even menial workers should make enough"so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life." "About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare. "I've seen my dream shattered as I've walked the streets of Chicago and see Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can't find any jobs. ... I've seen my dream shattered as I've been through Appalachia, and I've seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I'm concerned about white poverty as much as I'm concerned about Negro poverty."


On July 18, 1952, a year before his marriage, King wrote to his future wife, Coretta Scott King, sharing his affection for her:


“My life without you is like a year without a springtime which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere which has been saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter."


Then he switched gears, reminiscing about a book he had just read on economics that mirrored his “radical” views on economic justice, views that continue to be discussed today, that equality won’t happen in America until there’s a radical redistribution of wealth.


"I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."

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