Editor’s note: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is noted for being a great orator. However, many MLK day celebrations focus solely on his “I Have a Dream” speech, forsaking his later speeches that gave voice to his concern for human as well as civil rights. The speech below that Dr. King gave to the National Association of TV and Radio Announcers in Atlanta, August 1967, is an example of one of those later speeches.
We’ve built machines that think and built machines that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space.
We’ve built gargantuan bridges to span the seas and gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Through our airplanes we’ve logged distance and placed time in chains. And our jet planes have literally compressed.
But what I want to say to you tonight, my friends, is that when we look to the other side, something basic is missing. We suffer from a kind of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to swim the seas like fish and to fly the air like birds. And yet, we have not learned the simple art of walking the earth as brothers and sisters. And this is the great dilemma facing America. And, you know, it comes to this point now, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.
Now, there are three things that we must deal with and we’re going to transform this neighborhood into a brotherhood. We’ve got to deal with the problem of racism. We’ve got to deal with the problem of economic injustice or poverty. And we’ve got to deal with the problem of war.
Now we hear a lot of talk these days about the so-called White backlash. I want to tell you what the White backlash… It’s merely a new name for an old phenomenon. It is a continued expression of the same vacillation, the same ambivalence that’s characterized White society from the very founding of this nation.
On the Statue of Liberty, we read that America is the mother of exiles, but it doesn’t take us long to realize that America has been the mother of its White exiles from Europe. She has not evinced the same maternal care and concern for her Black exiles who were brought to this country in chains from Africa. And it is no wonder that our slave fore-parents could think about it and they could start singing in a beautiful soul song and a beautiful sorrow song, “sometimes, I feel like a motherless child.”
There has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of White Americans on the question of genuine equality for the Black man.
In 1863, the Negro was freed from the physical bondage of slavery through The Emancipation Proclamation. But he wasn’t given any land to make that freedom meaningful. You know, it was something like having a man unjustly imprisoned for 30 or 40 years and suddenly you discover that’s he’s innocent! That he’s been unjustly jailed for 30 or 40 years, then you simply go up to the man and tell him, now, you’re free.
But you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to buy any clothes to put on his back. You don’t give him any money to get on his feet so that he can rise up once more as a man. But this is what happens to the Black man in America, and we must remember this: that at the very same time America refused to give the Black man anything, they said you’re free.
He was left penniless, illiterate, standing out in a situation, not knowing what to do or where to go and we must not forget that at the same time the Negro was being treated like this, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest. It said that our country was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor, and it refused to undergird its Black peasants who were brought in chains from Africa with an economic floor. And so emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger.
It was freedom to the winds and rains from heaven. It was freedom without a roof over their heads. Freedom without bread to eat. Freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time, and it is a miracle that the Negro has survived!
But the White backlash didn’t stop there. In 1875, the nation passed the civil rights bill and refused to enforce it. In 1964, the nation passed an even weaker civil rights bill, and even to this day has failed to enforce it in all of its dimensions.
In 1954 the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the public schools, and today less than 10% of the Negro students of the South are attending integrated schools, which means we have made 1% progress a year, and it if continues at this rate, it will take another 94 years to integrate the schools.
Suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing and at the same time, or in the same breath, they contend that they are not racist. All of this tells us, my friends, that the White backlash is nothing new. The fact is that America has been backlashing on the question of genuine equality for the Black man for more than 300 years.
There isn’t any way to solve the problem of racial injustice without persistent non-violent pressure. There have been those who felt it could be done another way. Mr. Washington believed that the problem could be solved through pressure-less persuasion. He told us to let our buckets down where we were and the problem was that there wasn’t much water in the well.
For you see in the final analysis, if we’re going to be truly free, nobody else can do that for us. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation can do that for us. No Johnsonian civil rights bill. If we’re going to be truly free, we must reach down into the inner depths of our being and sign with the pen and ink of assertive manhood our own emancipation proclamation, and we must come to say “yes, I’m Black. I’m Black but beautiful. I’m somebody. I have a rich and noble heritage, however, exploited and painful it has been, and I’ve made a contribution to this issue.”