famous speeches series
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It has been said one of America’s greatest strengths is her ability to overcome adversity. Time and time again, during America’s darkest days, this has proven true. One such period in our history was the Civil Rights Era, during which supporters of equal rights for African-Americans were violently subjected to unspeakable treatment. During this time, many warriors arose to fight for that phrase enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Following the American Civil War, three amendments were added to the Federal Constitution. These amendments freed the slaves, granted citizenship to freed slaves and anyone born under U.S. jurisdiction, and gave African-Americans voting rights. Despite these additions to the Constitution, many states still used local laws to discriminate and prevent minority Americans from exercising their Constitutional freedom. For example, one literacy test in Alabama asked the question, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” During and following the Reconstruction Era, terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, used fear and violence to prevent African-Americans from voting. While the Civil War ended in 1865, state-sponsored discrimination of minority Americans would continue for another century.
By the 1950s, however, things began to change. Continuing into the next decade, events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Sit-Ins ignited a freedom movement throughout the nation. While many heroes gained national attention during this time, one of them - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - became perhaps the most recognizable face.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King led civil rights supporters throughout various states. Protesting institutionalized racism, King’s marches and speeches would reach Montgomery, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C., among many other locations across the US. During this time, he endured harassment, imprisonment, and the bombing of his home. Despite his trials, King actively sought God’s guidance for his mission. In his various speeches, he often used scripture and biblical imagery to promote his idea of nonviolent protest. On April 3, 1968, King stood at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. In support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, King delivered what would become his final oration.
A WALK THROUGH HISTORY
At the start of the speech, King paid recognition to Ralph David Abernathy, a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following this, he offered a brief journey throughout important events in human history. Essentially, he presented the journey as if God had directly asked him, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” King stated his response was, “I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across, the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there...I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.”
King took his audience through several other significant events that had impacted human history, and then brought the setting of his oration back to the present day. King remarked he viewed not only the American Civil Rights Movement, but civil rights movements across the globe, as God at work. Simultaneous to the Civil Rights Movement in America, individuals in South Africa fought against the entrenched system of Apartheid. King stated, “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.’”
GOD'S WILL AND NONVIOLENT PROTEST
King continued to state how glad he was to be alive during this revolutionary movement for human rights, as he believed he was fulfilling God’s purpose. To rally support for the Memphis Sanitation Strike, he ushered a call for unity, and brought to mind their success in Birmingham, Alabama. When Bull Connor, the police chief, ordered his officers to use attack dogs and fire hoses, King and his supporters banded together. In unison, they sang songs such as, “We Will Overcome.” Despite the difficult struggle, the civil rights protestors succeeded in their Birmingham Campaign. As King stated, “There was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now, we’ve got to go on to Memphis just like that.”
With their constitutional rights being violated across the nation, King reminded America of the vision the founding fathers put in place. Holding America to a high standard, he stated, “‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any other totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere, I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere, I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere, I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere, I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
THE MOUNTAINTOP AND THE PROMISED LAND
At the end of the oration, King encouraged his followers to continue their push for justice. One could possibly make a convincing point that King knew his time on earth was nearing its end and that his life’s work was complete. Wrapping up the speech, he stated, “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. 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!”
On April 4, 1968 - the day after delivering this speech - Dr. King was assassinated while standing on his hotel balcony in Memphis. Many leaders throughout our history have been influential in guiding a populace through dark times. Few of them, however, have had the same impact as Dr. King. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official holiday (though it would not be celebrated by all 50 states until roughly a decade and a half later). President Reagan also said this of King: “Abraham Lincoln freed the Black man...In many ways, Dr. King freed the White man...Where others, White and Black, preached hatred, he taught the principles of love and nonviolence.” Regardless of what obstacles we face in this life, may we always demonstrate the same amount of courage and reliance on God’s guidance as King did.
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