Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tells London Audience and the World: “The Time is Always Ripe to be Right”
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.
Now, as you know, we have been engaged in the United States in a massive struggle to make desegregation and, finally, integration a reality. And in that struggle, there has been an undergirding philosophy: the philosophy of nonviolence, the philosophy and method of nonviolent resistance. And I’d like to say just a few words about the method or the philosophy that has undergirded our struggle. And first I want to say that I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. It has a way of disarming the opponent, exposing his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know how to handle it. If he doesn’t beat you, wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense loves to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame to a haven of freedom and human dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there is something so dear, something so precious, something so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. And this is what the nonviolent discipline says.
And then the other thing about it is that it gives the individual a way of struggling to secure moral ends through moral means. One of the great debates of history has been over the whole question of ends and means. All the way back from the days of Plato’s dialogues coming on up through Machiavelli and others, there have been those individuals who argued that the end justifies the means. But in a real sense, the nonviolent philosophy comes along and says that the end is pre-existent in the means. The means represent the ideal in the making and the end in process. And so that in the long run of history, immoral means cannot bring about moral ends. Somehow man must come to the point that he sees the necessity of having ends and means cohering, so to speak. And this is one of the things that is basic in the nonviolent philosophy at its best. It gives one a way and a method of struggle which says that you can seek to secure moral ends through moral means.
It also says that it is possible to struggle against an evil, unjust system, with all your might and with all your heart, and even hate that unjust system, but yet you maintain an attitude of active goodwill and understanding and even love for the perpetrators of that evil system. And this is the most misunderstood aspect of nonviolence. And this is where those who don’t want to follow the nonviolent method say a lot of bad things to those of us who talk about love. But I still go on and believe in it, because I am still convinced that it is love that makes the world go round, and somehow this kind of love can be a powerful force for social change.
I’m not talking about a weak love. I’m not talking about emotional bosh here. I’m not talking about some sentimental quality. I’m not talking about an affectionate response. It would be nonsense to urge oppressed people to love their violent oppressors in an affectionate sense, and I have never advised that. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” I’m happy he didn’t say, “Like your enemies.” It’s pretty difficult to like some people. But love is greater than like. Love is understanding creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. Theologians talk about this kind of love with the Greek word agape, which is a sort of overflowing love that seeks nothing in return. And when one develops this, you rise to the position of being able to love the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. And I believe that this can be done. Psychiatrists are telling us now that hatred is a dangerous force, not merely for the hated, but also the hater. Many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of the inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. And so they are saying, “Love or perish.” This is why Erich Fromm can write a book entitled The Art of Loving, arguing that love is the supreme unifying force of life. And so it is wonderful to have a method of struggle where it is possible to stand up against segregation, to stand up against colonialism with all of your might, and yet not hate the perpetrators of these unjust systems. And I believe firmly that it is through this kind of powerful nonviolent action, this kind of love that organizes itself into mass action, that we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation and the world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. Certainly this is the great challenge facing us.
Now, I think that nonviolence can work not only in the situation that we find in our country, not only with the magnificent example that we have in India, expressed through the marvelous work of Mohandas K. Gandhi, but I think it can work in ways and in circumstances that we haven’t seen it or we haven’t used it before. And in this context, I would like to say something about South Africa. And I’d like to read just a statement that I have written here so that I’ll be sure that I’ll say everything that I have in mind about the South African situation without missing anything.
I understand there are here tonight South Africans, some of whom have been involved in the long struggle for freedom there. In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and difficult, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We have honored Chief Lutuli for his leadership, and we know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings at Sharpeville and all that has happened since.
Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind the South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters. We can speak to the press. We can, in short, organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa, even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.
Today, great leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, are among the many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison. Against a massive, armed and ruthless state, which uses torture and sadistic forms of interrogation to crush human beings, even driving some to suicide, the militant opposition inside South Africa seems for the moment to be silenced. The mass of the people seems to be contained, seems for the moment unable to break from the oppression. I emphasize the word “seems” because we can imagine what emotions and plans must be seething below the calm surface of that prosperous police state. We know what emotions are seething in the rest of Africa, and indeed all over the world. The dangers of a race war, of these dangers we have had repeated and profound warning.
It is in this situation, with the great mass of South Africans denied their humanity, their dignity, denied opportunity, denied all human rights; it is in this situation, with many of the bravest and best South Africans serving long years in prison, with some already executed; in this situation we in America and Britain have a unique responsibility, for it is we, through our investments, through our governments’ failure to act decisively, who are guilty of bolstering up the South African tyranny.
Our responsibility—our responsibility presents us with a unique opportunity: We can join in the one form of nonviolent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa, the action which African leaders have appealed for, in a massive movement for economic sanctions. In a world living under the appalling shadow of nuclear weapons, do we not recognize the need to perfect the use of economic pressures? Why is trade regarded by all nations and all ideologies as sacred? Why does our government and your government in Britain refuse to intervene effectively now, as if only when there is a bloodbath in South Africa—or a Korea or a Vietnam—will they recognize a crisis? If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil, if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny that we find there, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.
And so this is a challenge facing the nations of the world. And God grant that we will meet this challenge and be a part of that great creative movement that will seek to bring about change and transform those dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity to man into bright tomorrows of justice and peace and goodwill. And may I say to you that the problem of racial injustice is not limited to any one nation. We know now that this is a problem spreading all over the globe. And right here in London and right here in England, you know so well that thousands and thousands of colored people are migrating here from many, many lands—from the West Indies, from Pakistan, from India, from Africa. And they have the just right to come to this great land, and they have the just right to expect justice and democracy in this land. And England must be eternally vigilant. For if not, the same kind of ghettos will develop that we have in the Harlems of the United States. The same problems of injustice, the same problems of inequality in jobs will develop. And so I say to you that the challenge before every citizen of goodwill of this nation is to go all out to make democracy a reality for everybody, so that everybody in this land will be able to live together and that all men will be able to live together as brothers.
You know, there are certain words in every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and clichés. Every academic discipline has its technical vocabulary. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” You’ve heard that word. This is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. And certainly we all want to live well-adjusted lives in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, as I come to a close, that there are some things in my own nation, and there are some things in the world, to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation, discrimination, colonialism and these particular forces. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I must say to you tonight that I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence, for in a day when Sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or non-existence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation. And I assure you that I will never adjust to the madness of militarism.
You see, it may well be that our whole world is in need at this time for a new organization—the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment—men and women—men and women who will be as maladjusted as the Prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”; as maladjusted as the late Abraham Lincoln, the great president of our nation, who had the vision to see that the United States could not survive half-slave and half-free; as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who, in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could etch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”; as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day, “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” And through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the long and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
May I say to you that I still believe that mankind will rise up to the occasion. In spite of the darkness of the hour, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, in spite of these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, I still have faith in the future, and I still believe that we can build this society of brotherhood and this society of peace.
We have a song that we sing in our movement, and we have joined hands to sing it so often, beyond/behind jail bars. I can remember times that we have been in jail cells made for 12 people, and yet you would find some 15 or 20 there, and yet we could go on and lift our voices and sing it. I mentioned it yesterday afternoon as I was preaching at St. Paul’s. “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.” And somehow I believe that mankind will overcome, and I believe that the forces of evil will be defeated. I believe this because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” I believe that we shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: Truth crushed to earth will rise again. I believe that we shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold / Wrong forever on the throne. / Yet that scaffold sways the future, / And behind the then unknown / Standeth God within the shadow, / Keeping watch above his own.”
With this faith, we will be able to adjourn the counsels of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace and brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, theists and atheists—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!”
We have a long, long way to go before this problem is solved, but thank God we’ve made strides. We’ve come a long, long way, before I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher, who didn’t quite have his grammar and diction right, but who uttered words of great symbolic profundity: “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we ought to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.” Thank you.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his own words from a recording recently discovered by the Pacifica Radio Archive, the speech given in London, December 7, 1964, just days before Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.
Hear Dr. King’s speech at Democracy Now’s January 18, 2016 radio broadcast, commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on January 15th, 1929. He was assassinated April 4th, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when he was just 39 years of age.