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A Call to Conscience
The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Kris Shepard
Introduction by Andrew Young
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This companion volume to A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. includes the text of his most well-known oration, “I Have a Dream”, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Beyond Vietnam, a powerful plea to end the ongoing conflict. Includes contributions from Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, the Dalai Lama, and many others.
Sermons used by permission of Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, Georgia, as Exclusive Manager of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
A CALL TO CONSCIENCE. Copyright © 2001 by The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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First eBook Edition: January 2001
BY ANDREW YOUNG
Martin Luther King, Jr., was the Voice of the Centuryg. No voice more clearly delineted the moral issues of the second half of the twentieth century and no vision more profoundly inspired people—from the American South to southern Africa, from the Berlin Wall to the Great Wall of China. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of American moral possibilities expressed a universal hope for mankind that derived heavily from the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and the nonviolent actions of India's Mahatma Gandhi.
Martin's voice was more than the communication of intellectual ideals and spiritual vision. It was a call for action, action which he personally led from the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 until his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
Martin spoke with the passion and poetry of the prophets of old. He proclaimed for our time the faith that justice can and will prevail. He saw leadership as a process of relating the daily plight of humankind to the eternal truths of creation. For him, as he proclaimed at the funeral of three of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham:
Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
Martin was first of all a man of faith, a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus with its hope in a resurrection not only of his spiritual body, but also the social expansion of the ideals by which he preached and lived.
Martin's life was an effort to infuse our complex political and social existence with the spiritual power of "ultimate reality," to use Paul Tillich's phrase. To the millions who were moved to rise up on the powerful emotional cadences of his oratory, it was nothing less than the voice of God coming through the life of one of his young, humble, and obedient servants. His oratory sought to forge a new state of justice with mercy through the power of truth without violence—truth that sought to bring all men and women together as brothers and sisters: truth spoken in love and mercy that believed the world's conflicts could be reconciled in the power of the human spirit without resorting to violence.
Martin never reached the age of forty, being shot by a single rifle bullet just a few months after his thirty-ninth birthday. He always knew that martyrdom was the potential price of challenging America's version of racial separation.
Try though he might, he could not escape the burden of leadership. In 1954 King left Boston University for the sleepy southern town of Montgomery, Alabama, seeking the peace and quiet of small town life. While pastor of the relatively small but prominent Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he hoped to have the time and freedom to complete his doctoral dissertation in systematic theology. Just a few months after his dissertation was submitted, however, Rosa Parks's arrest on one of Montgomery's segregated buses and the subsequent boycott thrust him onto the national stage. He soon found himself selected Time magazine's Man of the Year, an honor bestowed before he was even thirty years old.
From that moment on, Martin came to symbolize and vocalize the hopes and aspirations of oppressed people all over the planet. The rich Negro spiritual "We Shall Overcome" became the nonviolent anthem of men and women the world over.
The most remarkable aspect of this moral crusade was that he expanded on Gandhi's use of nonviolence and the force of truth to liberate not only the former sons and daughters of slaves but the sons and daughters of slave owners as well. The message, though essentially spiritual, was nevertheless powerfully political, causing governments to fall, wars to end, and the courts and Congress of the United States to radically expand the human rights vision of the U.S. Constitution to include the enforcement of new freedoms for the sons and daughters of former African slaves. This same message soon inspired movements for the liberation of women, Hispanic Americans, native Americans, children, and the physically handicapped, and led, ultimately, to a "rising tide of expectations through the globe." Today's New South and the election of three sons of the South to the United States presidency can all be attributed to the struggle that Martin led to fulfill the American Dream without resorting to the destruction of either persons or property.
For Martin, social justice would not "roll in on the wings of inevitability" but would come through struggle and sacrifice.
* * *
His Montgomery speeches helped desegregate city buses. His Birmingham and Lincoln Memorial speeches sparked the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, putting an end to legal segregation of the races. In Selma, he successfully called for the right to vote. His condemnation of the war in Vietnam was instrumental in ending America's involvement in that conflict. In 1968 he was killed while struggling with Memphis sanitation workers to put an end to their poverty.
This is a unique way to read and understand history: from its primary sources. These speeches grew out of and helped to shape the moral challenges of the second half of the twentieth century. This marvelous compilation of Martin's words and witness were each tied to a specific challenge of injustice. He never sought a confrontation with evil. He was essentially a husband, father, and pastor of the Baptist Church, as were his father and grandfather before him.
Events in the American South and southern Africa, as well as the relatively peaceful democratic transformation of eastern Europe, have proved him right in seeing nonviolence as the best way to resolve the world's problems, while conflicts from Bosnia to Liberia continue to prove the futility of violence.
Perhaps reading these eloquent proclamations of a man of "organized, aggressive, and positive goodwill," who loved his adversaries as brothers and who gave his life in an attempt to "redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty," will show us the way into the new millennium and help us to continue to live these truths in the days to come.
ANDREW YOUNG worked closely with Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on efforts such as citizenship education and voter registration. Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1973, Young was the first black representative from Georgia since Reconstruction. After serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he was twice elected mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award. He is currently head of Good Works International, LLC.
ADDRESS TO THE
INTRODUCTION BY ROSA LOUISE PARKS
December 5, 1955, was one of the memorable and inspiring days of my life. History records this day as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement that transformed America and influenced freedom revolutions around the world.
I had been arrested four days earlier, on December 1, in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to get up and give my seat on a city bus to a white man, which was a much-resented customary practice at the time. Local black community leaders, the Reverend E. D. Nixon and attorney Fred Gray, asked me if I would be willing to make a test case out of my arrest, with the goal of ending segregation on Montgomery's buses, and I agreed to cooperate with them.
Mrs. Joanne Robinson and other local black women leaders of the Women's Political Council of our community met on the evening of my arrest and decided to call a boycott to begin on December 5, the day of my trial. I was found guilty of violating a segregation statute and given a suspended sentence, with a ten-dollar fine plus four dollars in court costs. This was in keeping with our legal strategy, so we could appeal and challenge the segregation law in a higher court.
A group of ministers met later in the afternoon of December 5 and formed a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association. An open meeting of the black community was called for that evening at the Holt Street Baptist Church. The ministers elected a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., whom I had met briefly a few months before, to serve as its first president and spokesman. Dr. King was chosen in part because he was relatively new to the community and so did not have any enemies. Also Dr. King had made a strong impression on Rufus Lewis, an influential member of our community who attended Dr. King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I had met Dr. King's wife, Coretta, and had attended concerts where she sang, but I didn't know she was his wife at the time.
By the time I arrived at the meeting, the church was so filled up that a crowd of hundreds spilled out into the street, and speakers had to be set up outside to accommodate everyone. The excitement around the church was electrifying, and I remember having a sense that something powerful was being born. I squeezed my way through the crowd to my seat on the platform, where a lively discussion about the boycott strategy was underway.
Then Dr. King was introduced to the audience and began to speak in the rich, poised baritone and learned eloquence that distinguished even this debut speech of his career as a civil rights leader. Later Dr. King would write that he normally took fifteen hours to prepare his sermons, but because of the hectic events of the day, he'd had only twenty minutes to prepare for "the most decisive speech of my life." He spent five minutes of his time worrying about it, and then wisely prayed to God for guidance.
His prayer must have been heard, because on that historic night, despite all of the pressure on him, Dr. King showed no trace of doubt or hesitancy. He spoke like a seasoned preacher and was frequently interrupted throughout his remarks by an energetic chorus of "Amen," "That's right," "Keep talkin'," and "Yes, Lord."
Dr. King recounted the abuses Montgomery's black citizens had experienced leading up to the boycott. He spoke about what had happened to me and why we must win this struggle. He told the crowd that our boycott was a patriotic protest, very much in the tradition of American democracy. He underscored the critical importance of honoring the principles of nonviolence and rooting our protest in the teachings of Jesus Christ, alongside our unshakable determination to win the boycott.
And then, as he concluded, he said the words that I will never forget, the prophetic words that, for me, still define the character of our nonviolent freedom movement: "When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people, a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.'"
Amid the thundering applause that met the conclusion of Dr. King's speech on that night, there was a sense that this speech had launched a brave new era. Dr. King had spelled it out with clarity and eloquence: This movement was not just about desegregating the buses, or even just the mistreatment of our people in Montgomery. This movement was about slaking the centuries-old thirst of a long-suffering people for freedom, dignity, and human rights. It was time to drink at the well.
In these pages we celebrate the wonderful oratory of one of America's greatest leaders. But let us remember that what gave his speeches and sermons legitimacy was that Dr. King didn't just talk the talk; he walked the walk from Montgomery to Memphis, enduring jails, beatings, abuse, threats, the bombing of his home, and the highest sacrifice a person can make for a righteous cause.
When I entered the courtroom that morning, I heard one of our supporters chanting, "They messed with the wrong one now." But when I headed home after Dr. King's speech I knew that we had found the right one to articulate our protest. As the weeks and months wore on, it became clear to me that we had found our Moses, and he would surely lead us to the promised land of liberty and justice for all.
ROSA LOUISE PARKS was a civil rights activist and local NAACP official in Montgomery, Alabama, for over a decade before her refusal to abide by segregated bus-seating practices on December 1, 1955, sparked the successful Montgomery bus boycott. Parks, facing the loss of her job and other forms of intimidation, left Montgomery for Detroit, Michigan, where she continued her political work and cofounded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
ADDRESS TO THE FIRST
ASSOCIATION (MIA) MASS MEETING
My friends, we are certainly very happy to see each of you out this evening. We are here this evening for serious business. [Audience:] (Yes) We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens (That's right) and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. (Yeah, That's right) We are here also because of our love for democracy (Yes), because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action (Yes) is the greatest form of government on earth. (That's right)
But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery. (Yes) We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. (That's right) For many years now, Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fear (Yes) on buses in our community. (That's right) On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and impressed—oppressed—because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. (That's right) I don't have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases. Many of them now are lost in the thick fog of oblivion (Yes), but at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions. (Yes)
Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery (Amen)—not one of the finest Negro citizens (That's right), but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—was taken from a bus (Yes) and carried to jail and arrested (Yes) because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. (Yes, That's right) Now the press would have us believe that she refused to leave a reserved section for Negroes (Yes), but I want you to know this evening that there is no reserved section. (All right) The law has never been clarified at that point. (Hell no) Now I think I speak with, with legal authority—not that I have any legal authority, but I think I speak with legal authority behind me (All right)—that the law, the ordinance, the city ordinance has never been totally clarified. (That's right)
Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. (Well, Well said) And, since it had to happen, I'm happy that it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks (Yes), for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. (Sure enough) Nobody can doubt the height of her character (Yes), nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus. (All right) And I'm happy, since it had to happen, it happened to a person that nobody can call a disturbing factor in the community. (All right) Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming, and yet there is integrity and character there. And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested.
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. [Sustained applause] There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. (Keep talking) There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. (That's right) [Applause] There comes a time. (Yes sir, Teach) [Applause continues]
We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now. (Yes) [Applause] And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. (No) We have never done that. (Repeat that, Repeat that) [Applause] I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation (Well) that we are Christian people. (Yes) [Applause] We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. (Well) The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. (Yes) [Applause] That's all.
And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. (Yeah) This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation we couldn't do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn't do this. (All right) But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right. (That's right) [Applause] My friends, don't let anybody make us feel that we are to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens' Council. [Applause] There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. (Well, That's right) There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating. [Applause] There will be nobody amid, among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. [Applause] We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. [Applause] My friends, I want it to be known that we're going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. [Applause]
And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. (Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) [Applause] If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. (Yes) [Applause] If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. (That's right) [Applause] If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. (Yes) [Applause] If we are wrong, justice is a lie. (Yes) Love has no meaning. [Applause] And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (Yes) [Applause], and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Keep talking) [Applause]
I want to say that in all of our actions, we must stick together. (That's right) [Applause] Unity is the great need of the hour (Well, That's right), and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. (Yeah) And don't let anybody frighten you. (Yeah) We are not afraid of what we are doing (Oh no), because we are doing it within the law. (All right) There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we are wrong when we protest. (Yes sir) We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, it was nothing wrong with labor getting together and organizing and protesting for its rights. (That's right)
We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. [Applause] May I say to you, my friends, as I come to a close, and just giving some idea of why we are assembled here, that we must keep—and I want to stress this, in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while—whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. (Yeah) Let us be Christian in all of our actions. (That's right) But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. (All right) Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love. (Well)
The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, "I love you, Israel." He's also the God that stands up before the nations and said: "Be still and know that I'm God (Yeah), that if you don't obey me I will break the backbone of your power (Yeah) and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships." (That's right) Standing beside love is always justice, and we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we've come to see that we've got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation. [Applause] And as we stand and sit here this evening and as we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, let us go out with the grim and bold determination that we are going to stick together. [Applause] We are going to work together. [Applause] Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future (Yes), somebody will have to say, "There lived a race of people (Well), a black people (Yes sir), fleecy locks and black complexion (Yes), a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. [Applause] And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization." And we're going to do that. God grant that we will do it before it is too late. (Oh yeah) As we proceed with our program, let us think of these things. (Yes) [Applause]
DELIVERED AT HOLT STREET BAPTIST CHURCH,
5 DECEMBER 1955.
INTRODUCTION BY REVEREND LEON H. SULLIVAN
During his last speech delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to his assassination, Martin Luther King said, "I've been to the mountaintop…. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land." Dr. King is still on the mountaintop looking down on us, guiding our steps in human rights, justice, and nonviolence as we try to get to the Promised Land.
- On Sale
- Jan 15, 2001
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing