MLK speech, via DN…
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I want to talk with you mainly about our struggle in the United States and, before taking my seat, talk about some of the larger struggles in the whole world and some of the more difficult struggles in places like South Africa. But there is a desperate, poignant question on the lips of people all over our country and all over the world. I get it almost everywhere I go and almost every press conference. It is a question of whether we are making any real progress in the struggle to make racial justice a reality in the United States of America. And whenever I seek to answer that question, on the one hand, I seek to avoid an undue pessimism; on the other hand, I seek to avoid a superficial optimism. And I try to incorporate or develop what I consider a realistic position, by admitting on the one hand that we have made many significant strides over the last few years in the struggle for racial justice, but by admitting that before the problem is solved we still have numerous things to do and many challenges to meet. And it is this realistic position that I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together tonight as we think about the problem in the United States. We have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.
Now let us notice first that we’ve come a long, long way. And I would like to say at this point that the Negro himself has come a long, long way in re-evaluating his own intrinsic worth. Now, in order to illustrate this, a little history is necessary. It was in the year 1619 when the first Negro slaves landed on the shores of America. And they were brought there from the soils of Africa. Unlike the pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, they were brought there against their wills. And throughout slavery, the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected. The United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in 1857 known as the Dred Scott decision, which well illustrated this whole idea and which well illustrated what existed at that time, for in this decision the Supreme Court of the United States said, in substance, that the Negro is not a citizen of the United States, he is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. And it went on to say that the Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. This was the idea that prevailed during the days of slavery.
With the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. You know, it seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe an obvious wrong in the beautiful garments of righteousness. And this is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. There were those who even misused the Bible and religion to give some justification for slavery and to crystallize the patterns of the status quo. And so it was argued from some pulpits that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. Then, the apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword: “Servants be obedient to your master.” And one brother had probably read the logic of the great philosopher Aristotle. You know, Aristotle did a great deal to bring into being what we now know as formal logic in philosophy. And in formal logic, there is a big word known as the syllogism, which has a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. And so, this brother decided to put his argument for the inferiority of the Negro in the framework of an Aristotelian syllogism. He could say all men are made in the image of God—this was a major premise. Then came the minor premise: God, as everybody knows, is not a Negro, therefore the Negro is not a man. This was the kind of reasoning that prevailed.
While living with the conditions of slavery and then, later, segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. Many came to feel that they were inferior. This, it seems to me, is the greatest tragedy of slavery, the greatest tragedy of segregation, not merely what it does to the individual physically, but what it does to one psychologically. It scars the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, while leaving the segregated with a false sense of inferiority. And this is exactly what happened.
Then something happened to the Negro, and circumstances made it possible and necessary for him to travel more—the coming of the automobile, the upheavals of two world wars, the Great Depression. And so his rural plantation background gradually gave way to urban industrial life. His economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry, the development of organized labor and expanded educational opportunities. And even his cultural life was gradually rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro in America to take a new look at himself. Negro masses all over began to re-evaluate themselves.
And then something else happened, along with all of this: The Negro in the United States turned his eyes and his mind to Africa, and he noticed the magnificent drama of independence taking place on the stage of African history. And noticing the developments and noticing what was happening and noticing what was being done on the part of his black brothers and sisters in Africa gave him a new sense of dignity in the United States and a new sense of self-respect. The Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children and that all men are made in his image, and that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth.
And so the Negro in America could now cry out unconsciously with the eloquent poet, “Fleecy locks, and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim; Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same,” and, “Were I so tall as to reach the pole, or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul; the mind is the standard of the man.” And with this new sense of dignity and this new sense of self-respect, a new Negro came into being with a new determination to suffer, to struggle, to sacrifice, and even to die, if necessary, in order to be free. And this reveals that we have come a long, long way since 1619.
But if we are to be true to the facts, it is necessary to say that not only has the Negro re-evaluated his own intrinsic worth, the whole nation has come a long, long way in extending the frontiers of civil rights. I would like to mention just a few things that have happened in our country which reveal this. Fifty years ago, or even 25 years ago, a year hardly passed when numerous Negroes were not brutally lynched by some vicious mob. Fortunately, lynchings have about ceased today. If one would go back to the turn of the century, you would find that in the Southern part of the United States you had very few Negroes registered to vote. By 1948, that number had leaped to about 750,000; 1960, it had leaped to 1,200,000. And when we went into the presidential election just a few weeks ago, that number had leaped to more than two million. We went into that election with more than two million Negroes registered to vote in the South, which meant that we in the civil rights movement, by working hard, have been able to add more than 800,000 new Negroes as registered voters in the last three years. This reveals that we have made strides.
Then, when we look at the question of economic justice, there’s much to do, but we can at least say that some strides have been made. The average Negro wage earner who is employed today in the United States earns 10 times more than the average Negro wage earner of 12 years ago. And the national income of the Negro is now at a little better than $28 billion a year, which is all—more than all of the exports of the United States and more than the national budget of Canada. This reveals that we have made some strides in this area.
But probably more than anything else—and you’ve read about it so much here and all over the world, I’m sure—we have noticed a gradual decline, and even demise, of the system of racial segregation. Now, the legal history of racial segregation had its beginning in 1896. Many people feel that racial segregation has been a reality in the United States a long, long time, but the fact is that this was a rather recent phenomenon in our country, just a little better than 60 years old. And it had its legal beginning with a decision known as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which said, in substance, that separate but equal facilities could exist, and it made the doctrine of separate but equal the law of the land. We all know what happened as a result of the old Plessy doctrine: There was always the strict enforcement of the separate, without the slightest intention to abide by the equal. And the Negro ended up being plunged into the abyss of exploitation, where he experienced the bleakness of nagging injustice.
And then something marvelous happened. The Supreme Court of our nation in 1954 examined the legal body of segregation, and on May 17th of that year pronounced it constitutionally dead. It said, in substance, that the old Plessy doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the segregated child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. And so, we’ve seen many changes since that momentous decision was rendered in 1954, that came as a great beacon light of hope into millions of disinherited people all over our nation.
Then something else happened, which brought joy to all of our hearts. It happened this year. It was last year, after the struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, that the late President Kennedy came to realize that there was a basic issue that our country had to grapple with. With a sense of concern and a sense of immediacy, he made a great speech, a few days before—rather, it was really on the same day that the University of Alabama was to be integrated, and Governor Wallace stood in the door and tried to block that integration. Mr. Kennedy had to have the National Guard federalized. He stood before the nation and said in eloquent terms the problem which we face in the area of civil rights is not merely a political issue, it is not merely an economic issue, it is, at bottom, a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as modern as the Constitution. It is a question of whether we will treat our Negro brothers as we ourselves would like to be treated.
And on the heels of that great speech, he went in, recommended to the Congress of our nation the most comprehensive civil rights bill ever recommended by any president of our great nation. Unfortunately, after many months of battle, and for a period we got a little tired of that—you know, there are some men in our country who like to talk a lot. Maybe you read about the filibuster. And you know they get bogged down in the paralysis of analysis, and they will just go on and on and on. And they wanted to talk that bill to death.
But President Lyndon Johnson got to work. He started calling congressmen and senators in and started meeting day in and day out with influential people in the country and making it clear that that bill had to pass, as a tribute to the late President Kennedy, but also as a tribute to the greatness of the country and as an expression of its dedication to the American dream. And it was that great day last summer that that bill came into being, and it was on July 2nd that Mr. Johnson signed that bill and it became the law of the land.
And so, in America now, we have a civil rights bill. And I’m happy to report to you that, by and large, that bill is being implemented in communities all across the South. We have seen some surprising levels of compliance, even in some communities in the state of Mississippi. And whenever you can find anything right in Mississippi, things are getting better…