On Dr. King’s birthday, it’s good to honor him, but it’s more important to hear him.
Here are some clips from speeches Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave in the last year of his life. The United States may have made his birthday a holiday, but it’s normally little more than an opportunity for the country to project its own fantasies about itself. It’s also a chance for business and other leaders to make classist and racist attempts to dilute the revolutionary nature of his message for self-seeking purposes.
It’s good to honor him, but it’s more important to hear him. So many of his words strike to the heart the crises that are unfolding right now—from the Middle East to the Middle West—even as our leaders clamor for ever more war spending.
Besides, what better way to spend Dr. King’s birthday than with the man himself?
The video compilation is above. Here are a few excerpts from those selected speeches, along with commentary that is offered in very sincere humility.
(This is a rough transcript, and I have lightly edited my own words for clarity.)
From Decency to Equality
…Many of the people who supported us in Selma, in Birmingham, were really outraged about the extremist behavior toward Negroes, but they were not at that moment, and they’re not now, committed to genuine equality for Negroes.
It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for Negroes and all poor people. It’s much easier to integrate a bus than it is to make genuine integration a reality and quality education a reality in our schools. It’s much easier to integrate even a public park than it is to get rid of slums.
I think we are in a new era, a new phase of the struggle, where we have moved from a struggle for decency, which characterized our struggle for 10 or 12 years, to a struggle for genuine equality. And this is where we are getting the resistance because there was never any intention to go this far.
As Dr. King explains, invisible injustices are harder to organize against. A lot of people in the white corporate liberal class take advantage of that to make token gestures, like the president of JPMorgan Chase “taking the knee” for Black Lives Matter.
Corporate opportunists use the outward symbols of injustice to inoculate themselves—not just against public criticism, but against their own consciences. They seek to inoculate themselves from the inner knowledge that they are perpetuating grave structural injustices against Black, Brown, poor, and oppressed people—here at home and all around the world.
Dulling the Conscience
Many of the values of so-called white middle-class society are values that need to be reviewed and re-evaluated. And in a real sense, they need to be changed. When a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, it loses its social perspective and programs of social uplift suffer.
It’s much more difficult to really arouse a conscience during a time of war. There is something about a war like this that makes people insensitive. It dulls the conscience. It strengthens the forces of reaction and it brings into being bitterness and hatred and violence and it strengthens the military/industrial complex of our country.
Today we are in varying degrees of conflict with many nations around the globe. Our media are filled with expressions of loathing, not just toward countries, but toward the ordinary citizens that inhabit them. Dr. King was as acutely aware that the psychic drive towards violence is as corrosive as hate—that it is, in fact, another form of hate.
We should be reflecting on that as we collectively exult—not regretfully engage in conflict, but exult—in the euphoric feeling of having an enemy to hate.
Justice on the Cheap
I think the biggest problem now is that we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain rates, so to speak. It didn’t cost the nation anything. In fact, it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established.
Now, we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars. Now, I think this is where we’re getting our greatest resistance. They may put it on many other things, but we can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing the nation something.
Every boardroom liberal in the country ought to hear the cold and yet compassionate honesty with which Dr. King says that the initial gains of the civil rights movement were gotten on the cheap but that now it's going to cost.
Doing the right thing is going to cost us. It’s going to cost the nation a lot of money to end poverty, to create decent jobs for everyone, to create economic equality.
Republicans engage in culture wars, but the Democratic establishment uses its own version of culture wars when it supports only the forms of social justice that leave economic inequality and structural violence in place.
That’s looking for justice on the cheap. Then comes a time to say, “Wait a minute, we’re going to need a higher marginal tax rate. These corporations cannot be allowed to rape and pillage the planet and the country. Working people, white, Black, and Brown, cannot be exploited this way.”
All of a sudden, as Dr. King experienced in his final years, all of a sudden the pushback comes. Dr. King understood what it will take to make justice real: at home, at work, at the supermarket, everywhere that people live their lives.
This is from the famous speech where Dr. King came out very publicly against the war in Vietnam.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I’m in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together, “Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam.”
The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines. A time comes when silence is betrayal.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak and we must rejoice as well for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.
Dr. King deeply and viscerally understood the connection between militarism abroad and inhumanity at home—which is, after all, another form of militarism. He didn’t live to see the militarization of our police forces, but he understood that when you become a militarizing and colonizing imperial force, those same impulses in your social personality inevitably turn against your own people.
War Is an Enemy of the Poor
There is at the outset of their obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program.
There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor, so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic destructive suction tube.
So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor.
This “destructive suction tube” of militarism is a theme that Dr. King returns to over and over in the final chapter of his life. Today we've got the largest military budget in history, approaching a trillion dollars. That’s the official budget. The actual expenditure is probably well over a trillion dollars a year already.
Now, a global military package is being proposed that encompasses Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the southern border of the United States. There is no unifying factor among them except the addiction to militarism—and the harm these projects will do to the poor.
A Message for Gaza
There is another striking parallel in what Dr. King says next about the Vietnamese people.
We drop leaflets on the Vietnamese promising them democracy and justice...
Just as we tell the Palestinians we’re going to—you know, someday in the future, when we get around to it—see that they get their own state. We tell them that even as our bombs rain down death and destruction on them. So this next clip, while it is about the Vietnamese, seems especially striking in the context of Palestine as well.
All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met.
They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go, primarily women and children and aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roll through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees... They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless.
The children. It’s always the children, isn’t it? It was the children in Vietnam then. It’s the children in Gaza now. We have shown a stunning ability to desensitize ourselves to the children.
And as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform, what do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new torches in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village.
Where is the two-state solution we have promised to build for the Palestinians? And as we test our new weapons on them, which we are not just the Israelis who are experimenting with quote unquote artificial intelligence bombing and new surveillance technologies, but we the United States, Gaza is being used as an experimental site for all sorts of new weaponry. (For more on this experimentation, see here, here, here, and here.)
Dr. King’s connection between the concentration camps of Vietnam and the Nazis experimentation on their patients is also apt for Palestine: the concentration camp of Gaza, the imprisonment and the deprivation of rights and perpetual violence against the West Bank. And as we see now the experimentation upon innocent Palestinians, men, women, and children, mostly women and children, with devastating effect.
Rallies Without End
But I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. And if we ignore this sobering reality, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing clergy and laymen concern committees for the next generation.
They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
We are attending rallies without end, aren’t we? We rallied against the invasion of Iraq. We rallied against the pointless and brutal ongoing attack on Afghanistan, which ended more than 20 years later, where it began with the Taliban in power. We have rallied so many times since 1968. We rally now against the assault on Gaza.
The new presidential billion-dollar spending package includes war for Europe with no talk of diplomacy, war funds for the Middle East with only symbolic pretend talk of diplomacy, and further militarization of the southern border of the United States with no talk of addressing the root causes there. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the more we have to fight.
The Jericho Road
We are, more than ever, a thing-oriented society rather than a people-oriented one. I’d say more about that, but I have to go buy a newer iPhone.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago, he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [Applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.
...We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
...We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
Fall of Empire
In another speech which Dr. King gave in the last year of his life, he addressed what he called the three evils facing society today: racism, materialism or greed, and militarism.
The crowning achievement in hypocrisy must go to those staunch Republicans and Democrats of the Midwest and West who were given land by our government when they came here as immigrants from Europe. They were given education through the land grant colleges. They were provided with agricultural agents to keep them abreast of farming trends. They were granted low interest loans to aid in the mechanization of their farms. And now that they have succeeded in becoming successful, they are paid not to farm.
And these are the same people who now say to Black people whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and who were emancipated in 1863 without being given land to cultivate a bread to eat, that they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. [Applause] What they truly advocate is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.
But I suspect that we are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple-pronged sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism.
Some 26 civilizations have risen upon the face of the Earth. Almost all of them have descended into the junk heaps of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasions but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impinging upon them. If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.
If you really want to clear out a room of Washington insiders, toss out a phrase like “late-stage capitalism.” They don’t like to hear talk like that. They don’t like to hear that we might be living in a declining empire. These ideas will discredit you in the mainstream discourse. Yet, as Arnold Toynbee (the historian that Dr. King mentions) understood, and as Dr. King himself understood 60 years ago, this is a fundamental part of the American story.
It might even be the end of the story.
The second aspect of our afflicted society is extreme materialism. An Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms. He says, “You call your thousand material devices labor-saving machinery, yet you are forever busy with the multiplying of your machinery. You grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more. And wherever you are, you want to go somewhere else. Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery.”
When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom. It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human realities around us, encourages us in the greed and exploitation which create the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again, we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice.
The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both Black and white, both here and abroad. We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. [Applause]
You caught that, right? “A radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
I just wanted to make sure you heard that.
“The Disease of Militarism”
The final phase of our national sickness is the disease of militarism. Nothing more clearly demonstrates our nation’s abuse of military power than our tragic adventure in Vietnam.
I don’t know if you noticed on the video, but the applause got a lot more tepid when he mentioned Vietnam and militarism. The sickness of militarism not an easy message to deliver. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. People love their enemies—or rather, they love to hate their enemies.
This war has played havoc with the destiny of the entire world. It has torn up the Geneva Agreement. It has seriously impaired the United Nations. It has exacerbated the hatred between continents and, worse still, between races. It has frustrated our development at home, telling our own underprivileged citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their most critical needs.
It has greatly contributed to the forces of reaction in America and strengthened the military-industrial complex. And it has practically destroyed Vietnam and left thousands of American and Vietnamese youth maimed and mutilated and exposed the whole world to the risk of nuclear warfare.
That describes the wars of today to a “T”—that’s “T” as in “tragedy.”
The American people must have an opportunity to vote into oblivion those who cannot detach themselves from militarism.
We don’t appear to have this opportunity today either—even though it’s, what, 65 years later?
And so we are here because we believe, we hope, we pray that something new might emerge in the political life of this nation which will produce a new man, new structures and institutions, and a new life for mankind. I am convinced that this new life will not emerge until our nation undergoes a radical revolution of values.
When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look on easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced income as a result of automation, while the profits of the employers remain intact and say this is not just.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. So, what we must all see is that these are revolutionary times.
“Because it is Right”
I have fought now too long and too hard against segregated public accommodations to end up at this point in my life segregating my moral concern. So, let us stand in this convention knowing that on some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But conscience asks the question, is it right?
And on some positions [applause] it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because it is right. [applause]
And we say to our nation tonight, we say to our government, we even say to our FBI, we will not be harassed, we will not make a butchery of our conscience—
we will not be intimidated—
and we will be heard. [applause].
Martin Luther King, Jr.: 1929-1968. You are missed.