The success of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement against segregation and injustice in the American south owes much to his visionary and inspirational eloquence. The civil rights leader is one of the most quoted people in the world. The following are excerpts from King’s most popular speeches, according to the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’: April 16, 1963
While jailed for leading anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote this letter arguing that individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’: August 28, 1963
The March on Washington took place in Washington, D.C., and was attended by 250,000 people. King’s speech in the nation’s capital, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. King started with prepared remarks but then departed from his script, shifting into the ‘I have a Dream’ theme he’d used on prior occasions, speaking of an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He followed this with an exhortation to “let freedom ring” across the nation, and concluded with:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
“When we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last—Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony: December 10, 1964
At age 35, King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. When he learned of the honor, he announced that he would donate all of the prize money ($54,123) to the civil rights movement.
“Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle, and to a movement which has not yet won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award, which I receive on behalf of that movement, is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”
‘Beyond Vietnam’: April 4, 1967
By 1967, King had become a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War. In this speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, King referred to the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
“Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and White boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’: April 3, 1968
On the eve of a protest march for striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King gave this darkly prescient speech. The next day, he was assassinated.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”