Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, a federal holiday in the US, by (re)reading and listening to two of his most famous speeches and his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This year it falls on 18 January, two days before the departure of a white nationalist president and the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden. (Dr. King’s actual birthday is 15 January.) Here they are in ascending chronological order.
Letter From a Birmingham Jail (13 April 1963)
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
“I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28 August 1963)
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. [enthusiastic applause] (My Lord, Lead on, Speech, speech)
Beyond Vietnam (4 April 1967) This was a year to the day before he was assassinated at the age of 39. It was his meeting with Thích Nhất Hạnh the year before that inspired and motivated him to give this speech. The same year Dr. King nominated Thích Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954—in 1945 rather—after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China—for whom the Vietnamese have no great love—but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
Dr. King was an international treasure and one of my personal heroes. I remember his assassination in April 1968, days before my 10th birthday and almost a year after the death of my father. It was a time of great sadness and upheaval both globally and personally. The US and the world desperately need more people like him. Current events in the US are stark testimony to all of his unfinished work.
Postscript: A couple of months ago, I had the my privilege and honor to be in the presence, albeit fleetingly and by sheer coincidence, of another hero and international treasure: Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Shalom (שלום), MAA