REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.:
I want to talk with you mainly about our struggle in the United States and, before taking my seat, talk about some of the larger struggles in the whole world and some of the more difficult struggles in places like South Africa. But there is a desperate, poignant question on the lips of people all over our country and all over the world. I get it almost everywhere I go and almost every press conference. It is a question of whether we are making any real progress in the struggle to make racial justice a reality in the United States of America. And whenever I seek to answer that question, on the one hand, I seek to avoid an undue pessimism; on the other hand, I seek to avoid a superficial optimism. And I try to incorporate or develop what I consider a realistic position, by admitting on the one hand that we have made many significant strides over the last few years in the struggle for racial justice, but by admitting that before the problem is solved we still have numerous things to do and many challenges to meet. And it is this realistic position that I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together tonight as we think about the problem in the United States. We have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.
Now let us notice first that we’ve come a long, long way. And I would like to say at this point that the Negro himself has come a long, long way in re-evaluating his own intrinsic worth. Now, in order to illustrate this, a little history is necessary. It was in the year 1619 when the first Negro slaves landed on the shores of America. And they were brought there from the soils of Africa. Unlike the pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, they were brought there against their wills. And throughout slavery, the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected. The United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in 1857 known as the Dred Scott decision, which well illustrated this whole idea and which well illustrated what existed at that time, for in this decision the Supreme Court of the United States said, in substance, that the Negro is not a citizen of the United States, he is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. And it went on to say that the Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. This was the idea that prevailed during the days of slavery.
With the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. You know, it seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe an obvious wrong in the beautiful garments of righteousness. And this is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. There were those who even misused the Bible and religion to give some justification for slavery and to crystallize the patterns of the status quo. And so it was argued from some pulpits that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. Then, the apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword: “Servants be obedient to your master.” And one brother had probably read the logic of the great philosopher Aristotle. You know, Aristotle did a great deal to bring into being what we now know as formal logic in philosophy. And in formal logic, there is a big word known as the syllogism, which has a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. And so, this brother decided to put his argument for the inferiority of the Negro in the framework of an Aristotelian syllogism. He could say all men are made in the image of God—this was a major premise. Then came the minor premise: God, as everybody knows, is not a Negro, therefore the Negro is not a man. This was the kind of reasoning that prevailed.
While living with the conditions of slavery and then, later, segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. Many came to feel that they were inferior. This, it seems to me, is the greatest tragedy of slavery, the greatest tragedy of segregation, not merely what it does to the individual physically, but what it does to one psychologically. It scars the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, while leaving the segregated with a false sense of inferiority. And this is exactly what happened.
Then something happened to the Negro, and circumstances made it possible and necessary for him to travel more—the coming of the automobile, the upheavals of two world wars, the Great Depression. And so his rural plantation background gradually gave way to urban industrial life. His economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry, the development of organized labor and expanded educational opportunities. And even his cultural life was gradually rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro in America to take a new look at himself. Negro masses all over began to re-evaluate themselves.
And then something else happened, along with all of this: The Negro in the United States turned his eyes and his mind to Africa, and he noticed the magnificent drama of independence taking place on the stage of African history. And noticing the developments and noticing what was happening and noticing what was being done on the part of his black brothers and sisters in Africa gave him a new sense of dignity in the United States and a new sense of self-respect. The Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children and that all men are made in his image, and that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth.
And so the Negro in America could now cry out unconsciously with the eloquent poet, “Fleecy locks, and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim; Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same,” and, “Were I so tall as to reach the pole, or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul; the mind is the standard of the man.” And with this new sense of dignity and this new sense of self-respect, a new Negro came into being with a new determination to suffer, to struggle, to sacrifice, and even to die, if necessary, in order to be free. And this reveals that we have come a long, long way since 1619.
But if we are to be true to the facts, it is necessary to say that not only has the Negro re-evaluated his own intrinsic worth, the whole nation has come a long, long way in extending the frontiers of civil rights. I would like to mention just a few things that have happened in our country which reveal this. Fifty years ago, or even 25 years ago, a year hardly passed when numerous Negroes were not brutally lynched by some vicious mob. Fortunately, lynchings have about ceased today. If one would go back to the turn of the century, you would find that in the Southern part of the United States you had very few Negroes registered to vote. By 1948, that number had leaped to about 750,000; 1960, it had leaped to 1,200,000. And when we went into the presidential election just a few weeks ago, that number had leaped to more than two million. We went into that election with more than two million Negroes registered to vote in the South, which meant that we in the civil rights movement, by working hard, have been able to add more than 800,000 new Negroes as registered voters in the last three years. This reveals that we have made strides.
Then, when we look at the question of economic justice, there’s much to do, but we can at least say that some strides have been made. The average Negro wage earner who is employed today in the United States earns 10 times more than the average Negro wage earner of 12 years ago. And the national income of the Negro is now at a little better than $28 billion a year, which is all—more than all of the exports of the United States and more than the national budget of Canada. This reveals that we have made some strides in this area.
But probably more than anything else—and you’ve read about it so much here and all over the world, I’m sure—we have noticed a gradual decline, and even demise, of the system of racial segregation. Now, the legal history of racial segregation had its beginning in 1896. Many people feel that racial segregation has been a reality in the United States a long, long time, but the fact is that this was a rather recent phenomenon in our country, just a little better than 60 years old. And it had its legal beginning with a decision known as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which said, in substance, that separate but equal facilities could exist, and it made the doctrine of separate but equal the law of the land. We all know what happened as a result of the old Plessy doctrine: There was always the strict enforcement of the separate, without the slightest intention to abide by the equal. And the Negro ended up being plunged into the abyss of exploitation, where he experienced the bleakness of nagging injustice.
And then something marvelous happened. The Supreme Court of our nation in 1954 examined the legal body of segregation, and on May 17th of that year pronounced it constitutionally dead. It said, in substance, that the old Plessy doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the segregated child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. And so, we’ve seen many changes since that momentous decision was rendered in 1954, that came as a great beacon light of hope into millions of disinherited people all over our nation.
Then something else happened, which brought joy to all of our hearts. It happened this year. It was last year, after the struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, that the late President Kennedy came to realize that there was a basic issue that our country had to grapple with. With a sense of concern and a sense of immediacy, he made a great speech, a few days before—rather, it was really on the same day that the University of Alabama was to be integrated, and Governor Wallace stood in the door and tried to block that integration. Mr. Kennedy had to have the National Guard federalized. He stood before the nation and said in eloquent terms the problem which we face in the area of civil rights is not merely a political issue, it is not merely an economic issue, it is, at bottom, a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as modern as the Constitution. It is a question of whether we will treat our Negro brothers as we ourselves would like to be treated.
And on the heels of that great speech, he went in, recommended to the Congress of our nation the most comprehensive civil rights bill ever recommended by any president of our great nation. Unfortunately, after many months of battle, and for a period we got a little tired of that—you know, there are some men in our country who like to talk a lot. Maybe you read about the filibuster. And you know they get bogged down in the paralysis of analysis, and they will just go on and on and on. And they wanted to talk that bill to death.
But President Lyndon Johnson got to work. He started calling congressmen and senators in and started meeting day in and day out with influential people in the country and making it clear that that bill had to pass, as a tribute to the late President Kennedy, but also as a tribute to the greatness of the country and as an expression of its dedication to the American dream. And it was that great day last summer that that bill came into being, and it was on July 2nd that Mr. Johnson signed that bill and it became the law of the land.
And so, in America now, we have a civil rights bill. And I’m happy to report to you that, by and large, that bill is being implemented in communities all across the South. We have seen some surprising levels of compliance, even in some communities in the state of Mississippi. And whenever you can find anything right in Mississippi, things are getting better.
We can never forget the fact that just this summer three civil rights workers were brutally murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. All of this reveals to us that we have not achieved the level of brotherhood—we have not achieved the brotherhood that we need and that we must have in our nation. We still have a long, long way to go.
I mentioned voter registration and the fact that we have been able to add about 800,000 new registered voters in the last two or three years, the fact that it’s over two million now. I guess that sounded like real progress, and it does represent some progress. But let me give you the other side, and that is the fact that there are still more than 10 million Negroes living in the Southern part of the United States, and some six million of the Negroes living in the Southern part of the United States are of voting age, and yet only two million are registered. This means that four million remain unregistered, not merely because they are apathetic, not because they are complacent—this may be true of some few—but because all types of conniving methods are still being used to keep Negroes from becoming registered voters. Complex literacy tests are given, which make it almost impossible for anybody to pass the test, even if he has a Ph.D. degree in any field or a law degree from the best law schools of the world. And then actual economic reprisals are often taken out against Negroes who seek to register and vote in some of the Black Belt counties of Mississippi and Alabama and other places. Then, some are actually faced with physical violence, and sometimes physical death. This reveals that we have a great deal that must be done in this area.
I mentioned economic justice, and I am sure that that figure, $28 billion, sounded very large. That’s a lot of money. But then I must go on and give you the other side, if I am to be honest about the picture. That is a fact that 42 percent of the Negro families of the United States still earn less than $2,000 a year, while just 16 percent of the white families earn less than $2,000 a year; 21 percent of the Negro families of America earn less than $1,000 a year, while just 5 percent of the white families earn less than $1,000 a year. And then we face the fact that 88 percent of the Negro families of America earn less than $5,000 a year, while just 58 percent of the white families earn less than $5,000 a year. So we can see that there is still a great gulf between the haves, so to speak, and the have-nots. And if America is to continue to grow and progress and develop and move on toward its greatness, this problem must be solved.
Now, this economic problem is getting more serious because of many forces alive in our world and in our nation. For many years, Negroes were denied adequate educational opportunities. For many years, Negroes were even denied apprenticeship training. And so, the forces of labor and industry so often discriminated against Negroes. And this meant that the Negro ended up being limited, by and large, to unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Now, because of the forces of automation and cybernation, these are the jobs that are now passing away. And so, the Negro wakes up in a city like Detroit, Michigan, and discovers that he is 28 percent of the population and about 72 percent of the unemployed. Now, in order to grapple with that problem, our federal government will have to develop massive retraining programs, massive public works programs, so that automation can be a blessing, as it must be to our society, and not a curse.
Then the other thing when we think of this economic problem, we must think of the fact that there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a segment in that society which feels that it has no stake in the society, and nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a number of people who see life as little more than a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. They end up with despair because they have no jobs, because they can’t educate their children, because they can’t live in a nice home, because they can’t have adequate health facilities.
We always hear of the various reasons why and the various myths concerning integration and why integration shouldn’t come into being. Those people who argue against integration at this point often say, “Well, if you integrate the public schools, for instance, you will pull the white race back a generation.” And they like to talk about the cultural lag in the Negro community. And then they go on to say, “Now, you know, the Negro is a criminal, and he has the highest crime rate in any city that you can find in the United States.” And the arguments go on ad infinitum why integration shouldn’t come into being.
But I think there’s an answer to that, and that is that if there is cultural lag in the Negro community—and there certainly is—this lag is there because of segregation and discrimination. It’s there because of long years of slavery and segregation. Criminal responses are not racial, but environmental. Poverty, economic deprivation, social isolation and all of these things breed crime, whatever the racial group may be. And it is a torturous logic to use the tragic results of racial segregation as an argument for the continuation of it. It is necessary to go back. And so it is necessary to see this and to go all out to make economic justice a reality all over our nation.
I mentioned that racial segregation is about dead in the United States, but it’s still with us. We are about past the day of legal segregation. We have about ended de jure segregation, where the laws of the nation or of a particular state can uphold it, because of the civil rights bill and the Supreme Court’s decision and other things. We have passed the day when the Negro can’t eat at a lunch counter, with the exception of a few isolated situations, or where the Negro can’t check in a motel or hotel. We are fastly passing that day. But there is another form of segregation coming up. It is coming up through housing discrimination, joblessness and the de facto segregation in the public schools. And so the ghettoized conditions that exist make for many problems, and it makes for a hardcore, de facto segregation that we must grapple with on a day-to-day basis. And so, this is the problem that we face, and this is a problem that we are forced to deal with. And we are going to deal with it in a determined way. I am absolutely convinced that segregation is on its deathbed, and those who represent it, whether they be in the United States or whether they be in London, England, the system is on its deathbed.
But certainly, we all know that if democracy is to live in any nation, segregation must die. And as I’ve tried to say all over America, we’ve got to get rid of segregation not merely because it will help our image—it certainly will help our image in the world. We’ve got to get rid of segregation not merely because it will appeal to Asian and African people—and this certainly will be helpful, this is important. But in the final analysis, racial discrimination must be uprooted from American society and from every society, because it is morally wrong. So it is necessary to go all out and develop massive action programs to get rid of racial segregation.
Now I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time. And I know they’ve said to us so often in the States and to our allies in the white community, “Just be nice and be patient and continue to pray, and in 100 or 200 years the problem will work itself out.” We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”
And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right. This is so vital, and this is so necessary.
Now, the other myth that gets around a great deal in our nation and, I’m sure, in other nations of the world is the idea that you can’t solve the problems in the realm of human relations through legislation; you can’t solve the housing problem and the job problem and all of these other problems through legislation; you’ve got to change the heart. We had a presidential candidate just recently who spoke about this a great deal. And I think Mr. Goldwater sincerely believed that you couldn’t anything through legislation, because he voted against everything in the Senate, including the civil rights bill. And he said all over the nation throughout the election that we don’t need legislation, that legislation can’t deal with this problem. But he was nice enough to say that you’ve got to change the heart.
Now I want to at least go halfway with Brother Goldwater at that point. I think he’s right. If we’re going to get this problem solved in America and all over the world, ultimately, people must change their hearts where they have prejudices. If we are going to solve the problems facing mankind, I would be the first to say that every white person must look down deep within and remove every prejudice that may be there, and come to see that the Negro, and the colored peoples, generally, must be treated right, not merely because the law says it, but because it is right and because it is natural. I agree with this 100 percent. And I’m sure that if the problem is to be solved, ultimately, men must be obedient not merely to that which can be enforced by the law, but they must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.
But after saying all of that, I must go on to the other side. This is where I must leave Mr. Goldwater and others who believe that legislation has no place. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.
Newly Discovered 1964 MLK Speech on Civil Rights, Segregation & Apartheid South Africa