TODAY, as our nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nothing we could say in this space would be as interesting or thought-provoking as some of the words that Dr. King wrote or said.
For a proper understanding of the civil-rights leader’s life and work, reading a good book or two about him is essential. To learn about him is to learn about America.
Try King’s own “Strength to Love,” Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographical trilogy, or David Garrow’s “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
But as a start on that journey, here are a few quotes from Dr. King:
“The familiar cry of states rights will certainly come up at this time. The South will argue that Federal intervention is an invasion of the rights of states. We must answer this argument by making it clear that we too believe in state rights. We are committed to Jeffersonian democracy and would not want to see a complete centralization of government. But although states must have rights, no state must have the right to do wrong. We must not allow state wrongs to exist under the banner of state rights. To deny individuals the right to vote through threats, intimidation and other insidious methods is not a state right, but a state wrong. ... We are for states rights when they are right.”
—excerpt from Dr. King’s remarks at a May 21, 1961, rally for the Freedom Riders at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. James Farmer, who launched the Freedom Rides to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling desegregating interstate travel, was with King that night. The Freedom Riders’ first stop on their way south was in Fredericksburg. Later, Farmer taught at Mary Washington College.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when ... your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ ”
—excerpt from Letter from a Birmingham Jail; April 16, 1963.
“‘We have moved all of these months in the daring faith that God is with us in our struggle. The many experiences of days gone by have vindicated that faith in a marvellous way. Tonight we must believe that a way will be made out of no way.’ Yet I could feel the cold breeze of pessimism pass over the audience. The night was darker than a thousand midnights. The light of hope was about to fade and the lamp of faith to flicker.
“At noon, during a brief recess, I noticed an unusual commotion in the courtroom. [Montgomery] Mayor Gayle was called to the back room. Several reporters moved excitedly in and out of the room. Momentarily a reporter came to the table where, as chief defendant, I sat with the lawyers. ‘Here is the decision that you have been waiting for,’ he said. ‘Read this release.’
“In anxiety and hope, I read these words: ‘The United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama.’ My heart throbbed with an inexpressible joy. The darkest hour of our struggle had become the first hour of victory. Someone shouted from the back of the courtroom, ‘God Almighty has spoken from Washington.’
“The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. ‘Weeping may endure for a night,’ says the Psalmist, ‘but joy cometh in the morning.’ This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.”
—excerpt from “From Strength to Love,” 1967. King reflects on the Montgomery Bus Boycott.