6 Iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Speeches to Watch on MLK Day 2017

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During a time when racial divisions, poverty, and the threat of a nuclear attack paralyzed the nation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered powerful messages of love and the triumph of good over evil. 

It’s been nearly 54 years since King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And while the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, the sick, the poor, Muslims, and LGBT people are still threatened every day, his message still rings true.

That’s why listening to King’s speeches—and that of other civil rights icons like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), Barbara Jordan, Robert F. Kennedy—feel as relevant today as ever. Their words of truth came at a time when many Americans felt despair over the fate of the nation. During such times of political turmoil and hatred, King had some radical words of compassion and strength for a long-suffering nation. 

Here are are some of the best speeches by King you can stream on MLK Day 2017. 

1) King’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Dec. 10, 1964

King became the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The world watched with horror as bombings of black churches, police violence, and protests became a daily reality in the lives of Americans. The Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s suggestion to use atomic weapons in Vietnam had raised alarm. King’s address in Oslo is one of his lesser-known speeches but perhaps one of the most important. “If you watch a tape of the proceedings, you will be struck by the speaker’s somber reserve,” the Daily Beast wrote. “There are no verbal crescendos; there is very little emotion and no drama at all. The template for most of King’s speeches was the sermon, but this is not a sermon. Quiet and reflective, it is more like a prayer.”

Key MLK quote

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

2) “I Have a Dream,” March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963

More than 200,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963. The march was organized by black activists and civil rights leaders to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. King’s iconic speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial is considered one of the best speeches of all time. King gave a call for all Americans to unify in pursuit of a better future. 

Key MLK quote

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

3) “A Time to Break the Silence,”  sermon at  Riverside Church in New York, April 4, 1967

King’s frank sermon that criticized the Vietnam War is considered one of his most controversial speeches. King’s opposition to war often takes a back seat to his civil rights work. According to CNN, President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to talk to him after he delivered the address. 

Key MLK quote

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. 

But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

4) “Our God is Marching On!” Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, March 25, 1965

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s drive to register black Americans to vote in Alabama was being pulled apart by law enforcement officials in March 1965. After a black protestor was shot by an Alabama state trooper, activists organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Police officers shot tear gas and swung billy clubs at the non-violent crowd. When evil seemed to have won out, King posed this rhetorical question, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”

Key Quote

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

5) “Where Do We Go From Here?” 11th annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Aug. 16, 1967

King’s address before the SCLC Convention came after years of struggle for the advancement of voting rights for black Americans. The problem of inequality seemed as insurmountable as ever. King sought to address the “corroding sense of fear” and despair that many Americans felt when old obstacles again re-emerged. 

Key MLK quote

Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites; and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population.

6) “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968

The last speech King gave before his assassination was vivid in its honesty but contained hope and optimism for a peaceful world. King gave the following speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenessee. In it, King challenged America to live up to its ideals. He was assassinated the next day. He uncannily predicted such a demise in the speech itself. 

Key MLK quote: 

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

For more on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017, see “If you want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., stay angry.”



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