The Speech

Take 17 minutes to watch this in honor of the thousands of blacks who suffered and died to get to where we are now, and the brave men and women whose blood and toil finally dismantled official segregation in the U.S.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech on civil rights took place on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C.  He spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He had given snippets of the speech before, but that doesn’t detract from its power, enhanced by the cadences of Southern preaching. I was in junior high school then, living only a few miles from where this speech was given, and I well remember how it galvanized the country.

I defy you to watch the last five minutes—the crescendo—without a tear in your eye, or at least a lump in your throat. (Note: a reader below says that my embedded video isn’t viewable in the UK. If you can’t see it, this one should work.)

Wikipedia notes:

Widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, King’s speech invokes the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the United States Constitution. Early in his speech, King alludes to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by saying “Five score years ago…” King says in reference to the abolition of slavery articulated in the Emancipation Proclamation, “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” Anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences, is a rhetorical tool employed throughout the speech. An example of anaphora is found early as King urges his audience to seize the moment: “Now is the time…” is repeated four times in the sixth paragraph. The most widely cited example of anaphora is found in the often quoted phrase “I have a dream…” which is repeated eight times as King paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience. Other occasions when King used anaphora include “One hundred years later,” “We can never be satisfied,” “With this faith,” “Let freedom ring,” and “free at last.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.


  1. Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    This is the kind of intellect coupled with collectivist feeling that we need to push economic reform, but I fear that the populations of many Western countries are beyond doing anything other than sitting in their armchairs complaining about their government while rolling over and taking it. Political polarisation and heightened individualism is dividing and conquering – humankind has a well-established history of dismantling broken governments and replacing them with new ones, and I don’t think we’re going to witness serious change until we run that experiment again. Right now, we’re all rather stupidly trying to fix an irreparable system that is intrinsically corrupt – it’s going to be painful, but I’m hoping that the inevitable catastrophes struck by climate change will finally kick people into serious action.

  2. Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    The above embedded video isn’t viewable in the UK
    This version is:-

  3. Marta
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I blow off most holidays, including Christmas. It takes too much energy to fight through the miasma of consumerism that most holidays have become.

    Two that I don’t are Thanksgiving (an entire holiday devoted to eating, sitting on your ass, and feeling grateful? Yeah, I’m in), and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday. I listen to that speech, the one you’ve posted, and the hymn “We Shall Overcome” every year on this day. Both make me teary-eyed and sentimental, aware of where I’ve come from, and how far I still have to go.

    I grew up in a post-Jim Crow south. Eliminating my own racism has been like peeling an onion–find and remove a layer, find another one below it to remove. There are so many unconscious biases, you see.

    And another confession: for about 192 years, I used the yardstick of how I’d feel if my sister married a black person to measure my progress. I never, ever said it out loud, that I had the yardstick, or that the answer was do.not.want. One day, for whatever reason, the answer changed to Then Obama was elected, and I peeled off several layers of racism all at once. I have more.

    Admitting this is very difficult, but this is a good day for it, don’t you think?

    And if you can’t tell your friends, who can you tell?

    • still learning
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      +1 Thank you for a thoughtful, touching comment. We all have layers of racism to peel away. Many of us make an honest effort to do so.

      • Marta
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        Thank you for your kindness.

    • gravityfly
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing that. We all have work to do in that department.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing. Your friends are here with you. Seriously moved. Hugs.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Lovely comment, thanks.

  4. mordacious1
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    A few days ago, one of the NRA spokesmen stated that MLK would be against any control of guns for citizens. Even if that were true, and I rather doubt it, being shot in the head probably changed his mind. Those nuts will say anything.

  5. Hos Loftus
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    As secularists it is our job to make the point that the Civil Rights Movement in fact had a very strong Humanist element. The March at which MLK was the keynote speaker was in fact organized by A Philip Randolph, a Humanist.

    • Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

      Indeed – Asa Philip Randolph was the director of the March on Washington and one of its founding chairmen, first conceived the March and convinced MLK, Jr. to join the March relatively late. Randolph was known as “the grandfather of the civil rights movement”.

      Bayard Rustin, the strategist and organizer of the March on Washington and its deputy director, was an openly gay atheist. He was also MLK’s closest advisor and mentor, and instructed him on Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance tactics. Rustin also organized the first Freedom Ride.

      James Farmer, founder of C.O.R.E and a founding chairman of the March, was an atheist.

      So was Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers and a founding chairman of the March.

      And Eugene Carson Blake, a founding chairman of the March.

      As was James Foreman, founder of SNCC, the Student non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

      As was Robert Nash Baldwin, founder of the ACLU.

      As were many of the founders of the NAACP.

      That’s just a little taste. In fact, most of the March’s official leadership committee, much of the top organizing and intellectual leadership of the civil rights movement in general, and many of its leading thinkers, writers, editors and activists were freethinkers.

      MLK acknowledged this numerous times, from his testimony in defense of Rustin to his acknowledgement in one of his books thanking secular humanists for leading the way on equal rights.

      American students never learn of atheists’ contribution to the civil rights movement – we have been erased from the history books.

  6. Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I hope Obama takes a lesson from MLK and turns into a real leader in this second term instead of a perpetual compromiser. We all had high hopes four years ago, and I think most of us felt disappointed that Obama did not move the populace forward with clearer and more dramatic rhetoric and actions. I hope these next four years he will inspire and lead. He must draw people into his dream, like MLK did.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      MLK had a dream. Obama has a drone.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        You are great, truthspeaker.

    • Gary W
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Not a chance. Obama was never the crusading progressive that many on the left persuaded themselves he is. He’s a triangulating centrist, very much like Bill Clinton. And in a deeply divided country, compromise is what makes politics work. If you stand on your ideals, nothing happens. If you want to actually get something done, you compromise.

      • Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        But a good leader can get around gridlock by stirring deeper sensibilities in the people who vote. If a president could convince the voters to share his or her ideals, gridlock would disappear.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          I think that’s just naive. Yes, good leadership can sometimes shift the balance, but political disputes rest in part on fundamental differences in political philosophy. Gridlock is resolved through compromise. You have to give your opponents some of what they want in order to get some of what you want.

          • Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

            Opponents look out for their re-election prospects, and potential; voters can be moved by grand ideas. Remember how volatile the presidential polls were during the debates? That amount of volatility shows that enough people can still be swayed by oratory and rhetoric (or lack of it) to change most election outcomes (especially since the nation is so evenly divided now).

            • Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

              oops, “potential voters”

            • Gary W
              Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

              Oratory and rhetoric may sway some voters in the middle, but they’re not likely to make many people abandon deeply-held beliefs and principles. That’s a much harder and longer process. The American system of government, with its elaborate set of checks and balances, was designed to make big changes difficult. And even on the rare occasions when big changes happen, they never come without compromise. Obama’s biggest achievement was probably health care reform, and that was severely compromised. The reform that emerged from the political process is mostly an extension of the current system to cover more people. A really basic change to health care, like a single-payer system, was never a plausible option.

              • Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                Sure, but with an evenly divided electorate, the people changed by good powerful oratory would determine the outcome of elections.

  7. marksolock
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  8. Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    King set the bar so high, not just the rhetorical one but the political and spiritual bar of seeking justice by means of dignity and the avoidance of “bitterness and hatred.” The stark contrast with violent extremist Islam comes to mind. But also I recall that Nelson Mandela, after spending most of his life protesting the growth of apartheid peacefully, finally in dismay took up terrorism and studied bomb-making, just before he was arrested and imprisoned—probably just as well he didn’t have the chance to follow that route. Generational change plays a role in the mellowing of oppression, and protestors and governments alike need to be careful about whether their methods will endear them to the generation growing up or alienate them. In this respect, King chose so well.

  9. George
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    What is the “true meaning” (to quote King) of the Declaration of Independence’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”?

  10. mordacious1
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I’m watching the Inauguration Ceremony now and it’s like a damn church service, I think Obama was trying to channel MLK on his holiday. The poet is now reading…no god yet…how refreshing and moving too.

  11. Dave Ricks
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    On the Richard Avedon Foundation homepage, if you click ARCHIVE, then click REPORTAGE, then click The Civil Rights Movement, there’s a portfolio of photos documenting the times.

    I stumbled onto the photos this morning, since yesterday someone in a bar was telling me about George Lincoln Rockwell founding the American Nazi Party here in Arlington, Virginia (photo 7).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      When I was a kid living in Arlington, a friend and I dared each other to visit Rockwell’s headquarters, which were in a ramshackle white house not too far from where I lived. We went there with trepidation, and were greeted effusively by a bunch of crazies wearing Nazi uniforms, who invited us in and gave us a bunch of hate literature. It was scary but educational.

  12. Pray Hard
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I saw it live when I was a kid. It’s affected my entire life.

  13. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The Martin Luther King holiday has recently come and gone by with a trivial amount of notice by the major media. It is largely regarded as a nice three day winter weekend and therefore good for a skiing vacation for the family. Not much else is done to commemorate the event beyond a few presentations of excerpts from King’s August of 1963, “I Have A Dream” speech. (Current mass media seems to stop coverage of King at this 1963 date.)

    This year the holiday coincides with the inauguration of President Obama for a second term. It must be of some historic value that we note the anniversary of the birth of the civil rights hero in the same time frame as the commencement of a second term in office for the first African-American President.

    What connection does Martin Luther King, Jr. have with President Barack Obama?

    In my opinion, not much!

    Obama is a politician and a pragmatist. He checks the opinion polls before he checks his conscience. He protects the financial folks who have protected him and he does little, if anything, to protect those who do not have wealthy financial protectors. King did not operate this way. King was a critic of the status quo.

    In my view, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be a serious critic of President Barack Obama, just as he was, in fact, a serious critic of President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    You don’t have to take my word for any of this. Just look at the record of King’s speeches over the years. His voice was raised, not in behalf of the advancement of a few token members into the socio-economic elite, but on behalf of the poor and the under class. He spoke for the common interests of whites and blacks, but he consistently spoke on behalf of the need for a democratic society that would transcend race and class. He opposed racism, but he also opposed poverty. An American, he criticized and challenged Americans.

    Consider a few of the following quotes:

    “. . . We must be concerned about the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject, deadening poverty. One does not have to be a communist to be concerned about this.

    I would say to you this morning that one-tenth of one percent of the population of this nation controls almost fifty percent of the wealth, and I don’t mind saying that there’s something wrong with that. . . .”

    30 September 1962, Can a Christian be a Communist? Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

    In 1967, he said:

    And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. It’s even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.

    And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls—the economic conditions that stagnate the soul (Yes) and the city governments that may damn the soul—is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion (Yes, Amen) in need of new blood. And so I come to you this morning, to talk about some of the great insights from the scripture in general, and from the New Testament in particular.

    27 August 1967 “Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool”

    Before he died, he asked:

    “. . . There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are questions that must be asked. . . .”

    Cited in: John Nichols, _The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . .” New York: Verso, 2011.

    Food for thought. Dig in!

    Comments invited!

    John J. Fitzgerald
    21 January 2013

  14. Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Jerry’s post inspired me to read more about MLK. Although I was alive at the time, I had forgotten just how vehemently anti-war he was. Not a peep of this appeared today in the mainstream media. His speeches against American militarism/imperialism were every bit as strong and as prescient as this “I have a dream” speech, yet we never hear of them. The famous speech is the one that is “safe” from today’s perspective; the overt racism of the 50s and 60s is largely gone, so we can comfortably listen to that speech and pat ourselves on the back. But his anti-war speeches are not safe. They would challenge the whole post-9/11 American mindset. They would have us squirming in our seats, just like the southern whites of the ’60s must have done when they listened to the “I have a dream” speech.

    Read this article to remember the anti-imperialist MLK, delivering a message which is as relevant today as it was then. Our leaders and our countrymen should be forced to hear this message over and over again, “from every mountaintop…”

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Hear, hear.

      We celebrate a sanitized, safe King. There was so much more.

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