Back when I was CEO of NFR, in 1999, I broke labor laws by sending an email to all staff on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, reading, “your assignment today is to listen to the full speech by Dr King (link) and think about it while you take the rest of the day off, or you can come in and work.”
For a while, it was hard to find a complete unedited copy of that speech. I’m afraid that it’s because the speech is really pretty uncompromising and, at moments, chilling. Whenever I hear it quoted or sub-sampled, it’s usually the conciliatory and hopeful parts – the parts that are less threatening to the establishment.
That’s why I think it’s important to listen to, in toto. It’s an absolute masterpiece of rhetoric (and, if you consider my notes on hypnosis, it’s interesting to look for the places where King is flipping the audience from confrontation to conciliation to soften them up! [stderr]) King’s pacing and delivery are mesmerizing. He makes his speech self-referential (“one hundred years later…”) to emphasize the parts he wants people to remember – it’s brilliant work.
My favorite parts in the speech are two: when King is introduced as “The moral leader of our nation”, which was true in the moment, and when he starts talking about coming to cash a check drawn on the Bank of Liberty:
In a sense we have 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 they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable 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. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
The Establishment even refers to it as the “I have a dream” speech, subtly directing the listener toward the more conciliatory part.
Malcolm X thought that King was being used by The Establishment, and I tend to agree. But even so, King was a threat enough that they murdered him to silence that voice. Rhetoric is dangerous.
Another aspect of Dr. King’s life that is downplayed is the question of whether his death was a result of an FBI (or maybe CIA) conspiracy. To me, it has always seemed obvious that it was – that’s what a state-sponsored assassination would look like. Yet, there have been abundant conspiracy theories about the murder of JFK and comparatively few about King. If you ask black people, they don’t have a lot of doubts as to whether or not it was a state-sponsored assassination, and they also understand why there’s a focus on a dead, rich, white, oligarch’s killing, while Dr. King is just another dead black man, killed by the police.