King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. After considering careers in medicine and law, he entered the ministry. While studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King heard a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. Over the next few months King read several books on the ideas of Gandhi, and eventually became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America. He was particularly struck by Gandhi's words: "Through our pain we will make them see their injustice". King was also influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his theories on how to use nonviolent resistance to achieve social change.
After his marriage to Coretta Scott, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, like most towns in the Deep South, buses were segregated. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man.
After the arrest of Rosa Parks, King and his friends, Ralph David Abernathy, Edgar Nixon, and Bayard Rustin helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration. and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956.
Harris Wofford was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South in the late 1950s and became a friend and unofficial advisor to Martin Luther King. In 1957 Wofford arranged for King to visit India. According to Coretta King, after this trip her husband "constantly pondered how to apply Gandhian principles in America." In 1957 King joined with the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organisation was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."
There had been a long tradition of nonviolent resistance to racism in the United States. Frederick Douglass had advocated these methods during the fight against slavery. Other black leaders such as Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had successfully used nonviolence against racism in the 1940s. The importance of the SCLC was that now the black church, a powerful organisation in the South, was to become fully involved in the struggle for civil rights.
After the successful outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King wrote Stride Toward Freedom (1958). The book described what happened at Montgomery and explained King's views on non-violence and direct action. The book was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students read the book and decided to take action themselves. They started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth's store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of King they did not hit back.
Harris Wofford was involved in negotiations with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 Presidential Campaign. He later recalled: "He (King) was impressed and encouraged by the far-reaching Democratic civil rights platform, and preferred to use the campaign period to negotiate civil rights commitments from both candidates, but particularly from Kennedy." After his election victory Kennedy appointed Wofford as his Special Assistant for Civil Rights. Wofford also served as chairman of the Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights.
King's non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over the Deep South. This included the activities of the Freedom Riders in their campaign against segregated transport. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.
King travelled the country making speeches and inspiring people to become involved in the civil rights movement. As well as advocating non-violent student sit-ins, King also urged economic boycotts similar to the one that took place at Montgomery. He argued that as African Americans made up 10% of the population they had considerable economic power. By selective buying, they could reward companies that were sympathetic to the civil rights movement while punishing those who still segregated their workforce.
The campaign to end segregation at lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, was less successful. In the spring of 1963 police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King and large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.
King always stressed the importance of the ballot. He argued that once all African Americans had the vote they would become an important political force. Although they were a minority, once the vote was organized, they could determine the result of presidential and state elections. This was illustrated by the African American support for John F. Kennedy that helped give him a narrow victory in the 1960 election.
In the Deep South considerable pressure was put on blacks not to vote by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. An example of this was the state of Mississippi. By 1960, 42% of the population were black but only 2% were registered to vote. Lynching was still employed as a method of terrorizing the local black population. Emmett Till, a fourteen year old schoolboy was lynched for whistling at a white woman, while others were murdered for encouraging black people to register to vote. King helped organize voting registration campaigns in states such as Mississippi but progress was slow.
During the 1960 presidential election campaign John F. Kennedy argued for a new Civil Rights Act. After the election it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the African American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation.
During the Freedom Riders campaign Robert F. Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the protesters. Kennedy admitted to Anthony Lewis that he had come to the conclusion that Martin Luther King was closely associated with members of the American Communist Party and he asked J. Edgar Hoover “to make an intensive investigation of him, to see who his companions were and also to see what other activities he was involved in… They mad that intensive investigation, and I gave them also permission to put a tap on his phone.”
Hoover reported to Kennedy that was a “Marxist” and that he was very close to Stanley Levison, who was a “secret member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party”. Hoover informed King that Levison, who was a legal adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was a member of Communist Party. However, when King refused to dismiss Levison, the Kennedys became convinced that King was himself a communist.
John F. Kennedy agreed to move Harris Wofford in April 1962. Robert Kennedy told Anthony Lewis: “Harris Wofford was very emotionally involved in all these matters and was rather in some areas a slight madman. I didn’t want to have someone in the Civil Rights Division who was dealing not from fact but was dealing from emotion… I wanted advice and ideas from somebody who had the same interests and motivation that I did.” Wofford became the Peace Corps Special Representative for Africa. Later he was appointed as Associate Director of the Peace Corps.
The Civil Rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 and in a speech on television on 11th June, Kennedy pointed out that: "The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much."
In an attempt to persuade Congress to pass Kennedy's proposed legislation, King and other civil rights leaders organized the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin was given overall control of the march and he managed to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.
The decision to appoint Bayard Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who was against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist Party made him an easy target for the right-wing press. Although Rustin had left the party in 1941, he still retained his contacts with its leaders such as Benjamin Davis.
Wilkins also feared that the fact that Rustin had been imprisoned several times for both refusing to fight in the armed forces and for acts of homosexuality, would be used against him in the days leading up to the march. However, King and Philip Randolph insisted that he was the best person for the job.
Wilkins was right to be concerned about a possible smear campaign against Rustin. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Bayard Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King.
This information was now passed on to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Strom Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a "communist, draft dodger and homosexual".
Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: "If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital they will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of unconstrained violence if Congress doesn't deliver."
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League), Dorothy Height (NCNW) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Kennedy's Civil Rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. Using his considerable influence in Congress, Johnson was able to get the legislation passed.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin.
King now concentrated on achieving a federal voting-rights law. In March 1965 he organized a protest march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. King was not with the marchers when they were attacked by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas. He did lead the second march but upset some of his younger followers when he turned back at the Pettus Bridge when faced by a barricade of state troopers.
After the attacks on King's supporters at Selma, Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. This legislation proposed to remove the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Johnson explained how: "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes."
Although opposed by politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). The legislation empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list.
After the passing of these two important pieces of legislation, King concentrated on helping those suffering from poverty. King realised that race and economic issues were closely connected and he began talking about the need to redistribute wealth. In Why We Can't Wait (1964) and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community (1967), King argued that African Americans and poor whites were natural allies and if they worked together they could help change society. King's growing radicalism was illustrated in a speech he made in Selma, Alabama: "For the last twelve years we have been in the reform movement (but now) we have moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution."
On 3rd April, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. made a speech where he outlined the reasons why he was opposed to the Vietnam War. After he made this speech, the editor of The Nation, Carey McWilliams and the Socialist Party leader, Norman Thomas, urged King to run as a third-party presidential candidate in 1968.
William F. Pepper suggested that King should challenge Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. King rejected this idea but instead joined with Pepper to establish the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP). “From this platform, Dr King planned to move into mainstream politics as a potential candidate on a presidential ticket with Dr Benjamin Spock in order to highlight the anti-poverty, anti-war agenda.”
In his autobiography, William C. Sullivan, Deputy Director of the FBI, admitted that this decision created a great deal of concern to the ruling elite. “The Civil Rights Movement which began in the late 1950s gave organization and impetus to the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. The tactics of direct action against authority that proved successful in the earlier struggle were used as a model for the students of the New Left.”
Pepper was later to discover that the wiretaps of the conversations that took place about King becoming a third-party candidate “were relayed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and, through him, to Lyndon Johnson.” According to Anthony Summers, Hoover suggested to Johnson that the best way of dealing with King and Malcolm X would be to “get those two guys fighting”. He added the problem could be solved “if we could get them to kill one another off.”
Hoover told William C. Sullivan when he became head of the Intelligence Division in 1961 that “King was an instrument of the Communist Party” and posed “a serious threat to the security of the country.” Hoover instructed Sullivan to get evidence that “King had a relationship with the Soviet bloc”. Despite an intensive surveillance campaign, Sullivan was unable to find a clear link between King and the American Communist Party. When told this by Sullivan, Hoover replied: “I kept saying that Castro was a Communist and you people wouldn’t believe me. Now they are saying that King is not a Communist and you’re just as wrong this time as you were with Castro.”
Sullivan continued in his campaign to discredit King. In a memo to Hoover in December, 1963, Sullivan wrote: “When the true facts concerning his (King’s) activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal… When that is done… the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction.”
On 4th April 1967 King made a speech on the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City. King argued that the U.S. was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony" and calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He connected the war with economic injustice, arguing that the country needed serious moral change: "A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just'... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King’s opposition to the Vietnam War really upset FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. According to Richard N. Goodwin, Hoover told Johnson that “Bobby Kennedy was hiring or paying King off to stir up trouble over the Vietnam War.” It is true that Robert F. Kennedy, like King, was growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Vietnam. President Lyndon Baines Johnson became convinced that Kennedy was leaking information to the press about his feelings on the war. At a meeting on 6th February, 1967, Johnson told Kennedy: “I’ll destroy you and everyone one of your dove friends. You’ll be dead politically in six months.”
Martin Luther King continued his campaign against the Vietnam War. In October, 1961, the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara established the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). This took over the U.S. Army’s Strategic Intelligence Unit. However, following the racial riots at Oxford, Mississippi, the on-scene commander, Major General Creighton V. Abrahams, wrote a report on the performance of army intelligence at Oxford. It included the following: “We in the Army should launch a major intelligence project, without delay, to identify personalities, both black and white, and develop analyses of the various civil rights situations in which they became involved.” Abrahams’ advice was accepted and in 1967 the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB) was formed as part of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command (USAINTC) based at Fort Holabird, Maryland. It was the MIB that now began to take a close look at the activities of Martin Luther King.
On 19th February, 1968, Cesar Chavez, the trade union leader, began a hunger strike in protest against the violence being used against his members in California. Robert F. Kennedy went to the San Joaquin Valley to give Chavez his support and told waiting reporters: “I am here out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time – Cesar Chavez. I congratulate all of you who are locked with Cesar in the struggle for justice for the farm worker and in the struggle for justice for Spanish-speaking Americans.”
Chavez was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Kennedy had begun to link the campaign against the war with the plight of the disadvantaged. Martin Luther King was following a similar path with his involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign. As William F. Pepper has pointed out: “If the wealthy, powerful interests across the nation would find Dr King’s escalating activity against the war intolerable, his planned mobilization of half a million poor people with the intention of laying siege to Congress could only engender outrage – and fear.”
In February, 1968, Memphis clergyman James Lawson, informed Martin Luther King about the sanitation workers’ dispute in the city. Over 90% of the 13,000 sanitation workers in Memphis were black. Men were often sent home by management during working hours and this resulted in them losing pay. Much of the equipment they used was old and in a bad state of repair. The dispute began when two sanitation workers, Echole Cole and Robert Walker were killed by a malfunctioning “garbage packer” truck. There was no company insurance scheme and the men’s families did not receive any compensation except for a month’s pay and a contribution towards funeral expenses.
The local branch of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) threatened strike action unless working conditions improved in Memphis. When negotiations failed to achieve an acceptable solution to this problem, the sanitation workers went on strike. A protest march on 23 rd February, ended in violence when the local police used Mace on the marchers. At this point, Rev. James Lawson, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became chairman of the strike strategy committee. The Community on the Move for Equality (COME), a coalition of labour and civil rights groups, also gave its support to the sanitation workers. Roy Wilkins of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Bayard Rustin of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), agreed to speak at a strike meeting on 14 th March. Martin Luther King also agreed to help and it was announced he would speak at a public meeting in Memphis on 18 th March.
At the meeting King expressed his solidarity with the sanitation workers and called for a general strike to take place in Memphis. This caused create concern amongst the ruling elite. Many people interpreted the idea of a general strike as a tactic that had been employed by revolutionaries in several European countries. The strategy of King seemed to be an attempt to link the campaign against poverty with the civil rights struggle and the protests against the war in Vietnam. In his speeches King argued that the money being spent on the war was making it more difficult for Lyndon B. Johnson to fulfil the promises he had made about improving America’s welfare system.
James Lawson later claimed that King “saw the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as the beginning of a non-violent revolution that would redistribute income.” He argued his long term plan was to “shut down the nation’s capital in the spring of 1968 through massive civil disobedience until the government agreed to abolish poverty.” He added that the government became especially upset after he began making speeches against the Vietnam War.
King’s strategy of linking poverty, civil rights and the Vietnam War seemed to be mirroring the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Both men appeared to be seriously threatening the status quo and in that sense were acting as revolutionaries. Recently released FBI files show that during this period J. Edgar Hoover reported to Johnson that Kennedy and King were working together in order to undermine his presidency.
On 28th March, 1968, King led a march from Clayborn Temple to the Memphis City Hall. Although the organizers had ordered the marchers to refrain from any acts of violence, groups of young people ignored the marshals’ instructions and created a great deal of damage to shops on the way to the city hall. A sixteen-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot dead by the police who claimed he was a looter. An eyewitness said that Payne had his hands up when shot.
King was convinced that the violence on the march had been caused by government provocateurs. According to Coretta Scott King, her husband returned to Memphis on 3rd April to prepare for a truly non-violent march and to prove SCLC could still carry out a pacifist campaign in Washington. That night King made a speech at the Mason Temple. The I've Been to the Mountaintop speech It ended with the following words: "Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight , that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So 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."
After the meeting King and his party were taken to the Lorraine Motel. The following day King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the motel. His death was followed by rioting in 125 cities and resulted in forty-six people being killed. Two months later, James Earl Ray was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. He pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sent to jail for ninety-nine years.
People close to King were convinced that the government was behind the assassination. Ralph Abernathy, who replaced King as head of the SCLC, claimed that he had been killed “by someone trained or hired by the FBI and acting under the orders from J. Edgar Hoover”. Whereas James Lawson, the leader of the strike in Memphis remarked that: “I have no doubt that the government viewed all this (the Poor People’s Campaign and the anti-Vietnam War speeches) seriously enough to plan his assassination.”
William F. Pepper, who was to spend the next forty years investigating the death of Martin Luther King, discovered evidence that Military Intelligence was involved in the assassination. In his book, Orders to Kill, Pepper names members of the 20th Special Forces Group (SFG) as being part of the conspiracy.
Even the Deputy Director of the FBI, William C. Sullivan, who led the investigation into the assassination, believed that there was a conspiracy to kill King. In his autobiography published after his death, Sullivan wrote: “I was convinced that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but I doubt if he acted alone… Someone, I feel sure, taught Ray how to get a false Canadian passport, how to get out of the country, and how to travel to Europe because he would never have managed it alone. And how did Ray pay for the passport and the airline tickets?” Sullivan also admits that it was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and not the FBI who successfully tracked Ray down to London.
In a television interview from prison that took place in 1988, James Earl Ray claimed the FBI agents threatened to jail his father and one of his brothers if he did not confess to King’s murder. Ray added that he had been framed to cover up an FBI plot to kill King.
However, there is evidence that it was another organization that was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King. According to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, military intelligence became very interested in the activities of King after he began making speeches against the Vietnam War. In a report published in 1972, the committee claimed that in the spring of 1968 King’s organization was “infiltrated by the 109 th, 111 th and 116 th Military Intelligence Groups.” In his book, An Act of State, the lawyer, William F. Pepper points out that the committee was surprised when it discovered that military intelligence appeared to be very interested in where King was “staying in various cities, as well as details concerning housing facilities, offices, bases of operations, churches and private homes.” The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee commented: “Why such information was sought has never been explained.”
Privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without strong resistance. Hence the basic question which confronts the world's oppressed is: How is the struggle against the forces of injustice to be waged? The alternative to violence is non-violent resistance. The non-violent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that non-cooperation and boycotts are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.
I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist? An extremist for love, truth and goodness.
There are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal". Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over his injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens, and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its means. We are here because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest, form of government on earth. But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.
This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. For many years now Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fear on buses in our community. On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. I don't have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases.
But at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions. Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery - not one of the finest Negro citizens but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery - was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. . . . Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And since it had to happen I'm happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks, for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus.
And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested. You know my friends there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time my friends when people get tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.
We are here, we are here this evening because we're tired now. Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence. We have overcome that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. And secondly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation we couldn't do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn't do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.
My friends, don't let anybody make us feel that we ought to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens' Councils. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out to some distant road and murdered.
There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist.
My friends, I want it to be known that we're going to work with grim and firm determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this Nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I want to say that with all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour. And if we are united, we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don't let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing, because we are doing it within the law.
There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we're wrong when we protest. We reserve that right. We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. In all of our doings, in all of our deliberations whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action. And I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in application. Justice is love correcting that which would work against love. Standing beside love is always justice. And we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion but we've got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education but it is also a process of legislation.
And as we stand and sit here this evening, and as we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, let us go out with a grim and bold determination that we are going to stick together. We are going to work together. Right here in Montgomery when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say "There lived a race of people, black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights." And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization. And we're gonna do that. God grant that we will do it before it's too late.
The remark which drew the most applause was: "We will not retreat one inch in our fight to secure and hold our American citizenship." Second was a statement: "And the history book will write of us as a race of people who in Montgomery County, State of Alabama, Country of the United States, stood up for and fought for their rights as American citizens, as citizens of democracy."
Outside the audience listened as more and more cars continued to arrive. Streets became Dexter traffic snarls. There was hymn singing between speeches. In the end there was the passing of the hats and Negroes dropped in dollar bills, $5 bills and $10 bills. It was not passive giving but active giving. Negroes called to the hat passers outside - "Here, let me give."
When the resolution on continuing the boycott of the bus was read, there came a wild whoop of delight. Many said they would never ride the bus again. Negroes turned to each other and compared past incidents on the buses.
At several points there was an emotionalism that the ministers on the platform recognized could get out of control and at various intervals they repeated again and again what "we are seeking is by peaceful means."
"There will be no violence or intimidation. We are seeking things in a democratic way and we are using the weapon of protest," the speakers declared.
The meeting was much like an old-fashioned revival with loud applause added. It proved beyond any doubt that there was a discipline among Negroes that many whites had doubted. It was almost a military discipline combined with emotion.
I was immediately driven home. As we neared the scene I noticed hundreds of people with angry faces in front of the house. The policemen were trying, in their usual rough manner, to clear the streets, but they were ignored by the crowd. One Negro was saying to a policeman, who was attempting to push him aside: "I ain't gonna move nowhere. That's the trouble now; you white folks is always pushin' us around. Now you got your .38 and I got mine; so let's battle it out." As I walked toward the front of the porch I realized that many people were armed. Nonviolent resistance was on the verge of being transformed into violence.
In this atmosphere I walked out to the porch and asked the crowd to come to order. In less than a moment there was complete silence. Quietly I told them that I was all right and that my wife and baby were all right. "Now let's not become panicky," I continued. "If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: 'He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.' " I then urged them to leave peacefully. "We must love our white brothers," I said, "no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.' This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember," I ended, "if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance."
Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag! Be quiet but friendly; proud but not arrogant. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend. If there is violence in word of deed it must not be our people who commit it.
Here one must be clear that there are three different views on the subject of violence. One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal.
The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously. To this tendency many Negroes are being tempted today. There are incalculable perils in this approach. It is not the danger or sacrifice of physical being which is primary, though it cannot be contemplated without a sense of deep concern for human life. The greatest danger is that it will fail to attract Negroes to a real collective struggle, and will confuse the large uncommitted middle group, which as yet has not supported either side. Further, it will mislead Negroes into the belief that this is the only path and place them as a minority in a position where they confront a far larger adversary than it is possible to defeat in this form of combat. When the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support - he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects. When he seeks to initiate violence he provokes questions about the necessity for it, and inevitably is blamed for its consequences. It is unfortunately true that however the Negro acts, his struggle will not be free of violence initiated by his enemies, and he will need ample courage and willingness to sacrifice to defeat this manifestation of violence. But if he seeks it and organizes it, he cannot win.
The Negro people can organize socially to initiate many forms of struggle which can drive their enemies back without resort to futile and harmful violence. In the history of the movement, many creative forms have been developed - the mass boycott, sitdown protests and strikes, sit-ins - refusal to pay fines and bail for unjust arrests - mass marches - mass meetings - prayer pilgrimages, etc.
There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men. Our enemies would prefer to deal with a small armed group rather than with a huge, unarmed but resolute mass of people. However, it is necessary that the mass-action method be persistent and unyielding.
It should be clear to all of us that Martin Luther King must, at some propitious point in the future, be revealed to the people of this country and to his Negro followers as being what he actually is - a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel. When the true facts concerning his activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence. When this is done, and it can be and will be done, obviously much confusion will reign, particularly among the Negro people... The Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction. This is what could happen, but need not happen if the right kind of a national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed so as to overshadow Dr. King and be in the position to assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited.
For some months I have been thinking about this matter. One day I had an opportunity to explore this from a philosophical and sociological standpoint with an acquaintance whom I have known for some years.... I asked him to give the matter some attention and if he knew any Negro of outstanding intelligence and ability to let me know and we would have a discussion. He has submitted to me the name of the above-captioned person. Enclosed with this memorandum is an outline of (the person's) biography which is truly remarkable for a man so young. On scanning this biography, it will be seen that (Samuel Pierce) does have all the qualifications of the kind of a Negro I have in mind to advance to positions of national leadership....
If this thing can be set up properly without the Bureau in any way becoming directly involved, I think it would be not only a great help to the FBI but would be a fine thing for the country at large. While I am not specifying at this moment, there are various ways in which the FBI could give this entire matter the proper direction and development. There are highly placed contacts of the FBI who might be very helpful to further such a step. These can be discussed in detail later when I have probed more fully into the possibilities.
It is known that, with the blessings of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the Justice Department relentlessly tried to tie King to the Communist Party. This was not just Hoover acting on his own obsessions, it was a war against the black movement. And Hoover decided the cheap way to win that war was to discredit the movement's most respected figure.
Hoover assigned the job to assistant FBI director William Sullivan, who branded King "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation." In his book, "My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI," Sullivan said "There were no fewer than 14 men with high-ranking positions who not only never objected to the investigation of King, but because of Hoover's pressure were vigorously behind it."
Sullivan coordinated the "Seat of Government" committee, mostly special agents from Washington DC and Atlanta offices, who deluged King with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison pen letters, and threats, and leaked smear stories to the media.
We would march until we faced the troopers. We would not disengage until they made clear that they were going to use force. We would disengage then, having made our point, revealing the continued presence of violence, and showing clearly who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors.
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have several reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor - both black and white - through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years - especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my convictions that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked - and rightly so - what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government.
They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least 20 casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What of the National Liberation Front - that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of "aggression from the North" as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem, and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than 25 per cent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them - the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning of value and compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
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.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom 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!
Non-violent direct action enabled the Negro to take to the streets in active protest, but muzzled the guns of the oppressor because even he could not shoot down in daylight unarmed men, women and children. This is the reason why there was less loss of life in ten years in southern protest than in ten days of northern riots.
I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane - there were six of us - the pilot said over the public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night."
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight , that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So 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.
By strange coincidence, when the shattering news of Dr. King's slaying came over the radio in the evening of April, 1968, I happened to be reading the final chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and had just finished a passage written shortly before Malcolm's own assassination in 1965. Malcolm had observed: "And in the racial climate in this country today, it is anybody's guess which of the 'extremes' in approach to the black man's problems might personally meet a fatal catastrophe first - 'non-violent' Dr. King, or so-called 'violent' me."
The prophetic power of Malcolm X's reflection was staggering. I had not been a passionate admirer of Dr. King himself because I felt he had not recognized the role of women in the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks was not even invited to join Dr. King's party when he went abroad to receive the Nobel Peace Prize), but I was passionately devoted to his cause. Beneath the numbness I felt after that fatal evening was the realization that the foremost advocate of nonviolence as a way of life - my own cause - was stilled and those who had embraced Dr. King's religious commitment to nonviolence were called upon to keep his tradition alive and to advance the work for which he gave his life.
Many people thought he was out of his mind when he led an army, not armed with guns or bricks or stones, 50,000 strong in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, and said to his followers: "Love your enemies, pray for them that curse and despitefully use you." Some of us may have wondered about him when he led us without physical weapons in the battles of Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; and Danville, Virginia. And we knew something must have been wrong with him when defenseless we stood before Bull Connor in Birmingham facing vicious and hungry dogs, fire hoses and brutal policemen.
He was the redeemer of the soul of America. He taught the nation that "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," if followed to its ultimate conclusion, would only end in a totally blind and toothless society. He discovered that the most potent force for revolution and reform in America is nonviolence. He knew, as the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee has written, that if America is saved, it will be through the black man who can inject new dimensions of non-violence into the veins of our civilization.
I was convinced that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but I doubt if he acted alone. Ray was so stupid that I don't think he could have robbed a five- and ten-cent store. He was not only stupid, he was sloppy. He left the rifle he used to shoot King in an alley, and he left beer cans covered with his fingerprints in the tnmk of his abandoned car. Ray could have left the gun in his room, or if he was smart he could have opened a hole in the wall and hid it there. He could even have broken the gun down into two pieces and carried it out in a small box, but he was sloppy. And stupid.
Someone, I feel sure, taught Ray how to get a false Canadian passport, how to get out of the country, and how to travel to Europe because he could never have managed it alone. And how did Ray pay for the passport and the airline tickets? Ray's brother told the FBI, "My brother would never do anything unless he was richly paid."
Thanks to all the clues he'd left we knew we were after Ray, but we had a hell of a time finding his whereabouts. As the weeks passed, the pressure on the FBI to find him grew. Johnson was giving us hell because Ray was a political liability and would remain so until he was in custody. There were rumors about Ray and the FBI: first, people said that we didn't want to find Ray; then they started saying that the FBI itself had a hand in King's murder. We had a lead that Ray had gone to Mexico, but we couldn't find him there or anywhere else.
As a matter of course, I had asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to help us find Ray. One night in early June, two months after King was shot, I got a call at home at eleven at night from Bill Kelly, deputy commissioner of the RCMP and a close friend. "I think we've solved your case," he said. The RCMP had painstakingly gone
through 250,000 passport applications, checking pictures and hand writing, until they came up with Ray's alias. It worked; they traced him for us from Canada to Portugal (where he had been living with prostitutes) to England. He had tried to rob a bank in England to get some money, but naturally he bungled the job. We asked the British to move in and pick him up, which they did.
At our request, the British forgot about the bank robbery attempt so that we could bring him back to the United States on a murder charge.
Ray was in custody in London for two days before Hoover released the story to the press. He waited until the day of Bobby Kennedy's funeral to break the news so that the FBI could steal the headline from Kennedy one last time. I told Hoover that we should give the credit for Ray's capture to the RCMP. Hoover said no and the FBI falsely got the credit.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.
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.
Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.
Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears. The white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt.
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.
The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.
We are not makers of history. We are made by history.
I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
A man who won't die for something is not fit to live.
If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.
The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.
Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.
A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.
Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.
Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'
The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.
Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.