On a hot August day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a short 17-minute speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights and an end to racism. He painted a picture of a vibrant, new world.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
A few years later, in 1967, King gave a speech at Stanford University where he spoke about the Other America, where millions of men and women walk the streets daily in search of jobs and live in rat-infested slums on a long island of poverty.
And so I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.” We shall overcome because the arc of the moral 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.” 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 discourse of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and live together as brothers and sisters, all over this great nation. That will be a great day, that will be a great tomorrow. In the words of the Scripture, to speak symbolically, that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.
Finally on April 3, 1968, King encouraged a church filled with striking sanitation workers protesting low pay and horrible working conditions to focus on the importance of unity and nonviolent protest in the fight for justice—no matter how painful the struggle.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He was assassinated the very next day.
These are three speeches picked haphazardly from a lifetime of fighting for what’s the right. He used his words and own experiences to put a mirror up for all of America to see. He showed us where we stood and how we could get better.
I find the speeches amazing for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest things that sticks out to me is that King did not start out as an extraordinary speaker or orator. He stumbled and suffered like many of us do.
In fact, he got a C in public speaking during his first year in seminary, but by the time he graduated, King had become an A student and had become the valedictorian of his class.
We continue to face challenges today on any number of fronts, but King’s example remains as relevant today as it was in the 60s. We face our share of challenges and disagreements, but peace, justice, courage, and dignity will overcome.
Yes, we shall overcome.
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