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Happy Birthday to you MLK!

January 17, 2011

Sometimes, we should let words speak for themselves:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of Lincoln Memorial. (photo: National Park Service)

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. 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. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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 slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little 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.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village 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!”


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rachel Smith permalink
    March 1, 2011 12:28 pm

    Hey Renee and Cara!

    Found you guys through languagelog and wanted to say HI! Shoutout from Abu Dhabi! Wish I had thought of it while I was in AAE… The blog looks great, hope all’s going well!

    Rachel Smith
    NYU Abu Dhabi

    • Cara Shousterman permalink*
      March 4, 2011 3:03 pm

      Hi Rachel,
      It’s great to hear from you!
      Thanks for the love and support,

  2. Devin D. Moss permalink
    March 24, 2011 9:39 pm

    I love this speech. In what I have learned about how the church and ministry influences and energizes people based on the performance of AAE, this speech means more to me now. It is not just a “speech”. The speech is performed in a manner where it becomes a pep-rally of language. That is what the Black church experience has been to me.

    On another hand, I recently spoke with an administrator at NYU who mentioned that Dr. King’s message seems to be touching far less students now days though. I agree to a certain extent because the speech is dated. Though it is still relevant and important, it lacks language for where we are today in our quest for social justice. We are now fighting for gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, etc… The message needs to be updated.

    Because it seems that Dr. King’s speech is out-dated, but the performance of the speech is still a foundation for many current leaders today, I hope that new speechers and activists come about who are able to motivate the Black community with their charismatic delivery of language while updating the message of social justice.

  3. Jake F. permalink
    May 5, 2011 11:30 am

    For many reasons, this speech seems to be the best modern example of maximum linguistic impact. Besides the fact that the emotional content and meaning of King’s speech is so urgent and necessary, his oratory style combines a an appeal to rootsy dialect (with some sort of racially defined “soulfulness”) and English oratory (endless use oif classical techniques, expecially repetition).
    MLK uses the two to make nearly anyone listening to this speech feel at once like an insider and outsider – relating either to MLK’s demographic representation, progressiveness, activism, or emphasis on civil disobedience, the calm poise with which he unites so many values and sects has the ability to inspire nearly all of his audience to act more like him. Besides the speech’s content, MLK, with his implied possession of all of these attributes, is essentially leading by example. King’s greatest tool was to inspire not just resonance of meaning but admiration in listeners; the activism this speech called for was achieved not just by a bunch of people who “got” MLK, but who wanted to be like MLK (at least in his public life).

  4. Shannon M permalink
    May 7, 2011 3:48 pm

    Hmmm… during this speech MLK doesn’t mention killing Osama bin Laden even once, contrary to what the internet would have had us believe this past week! Despite the almost laughable inaccuracy of that viral quote that traveled around shortly after Sunday night (which, as we have since learned, originated as a misread of an actual MLK quote posted by an American girl teaching English in Japan), it makes you wonder: what is it about the suggestion that a sentiment may have been vocally expressed by MLK that lends it this totally viral and universal legitimacy, so much so that whether it was actually really and truly said is not even questioned for relatively quite awhile? It’s as if the power and beauty of his words and rhetoric have totally replaced the humanity and mortality of the man himself, so that he has become this transcendent and timeless applicable-quotation-producing force that can be called on to justify any generalization of moral “right”ness that any situation calls for. Now that we have since had an actual living person, the Dalai Lama, justify the death of Bin Laden, we can once more let MLK rest as a historical figure. Although this was originally posted on his birthday, it serves an additional purpose now after this fake quote business, firmly asserting that Dr. King was a real person, though an exceptionally intelligent, poetic, and courageous one, who was born, lived, and died, rather than this quote-producing decontextualized force he seems to have become of late. Hopefully MLK-attributed quotes will be policed with more caution the next time one goes viral.

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