Sometimes there are no words that do justice to a moment in history. Only a picture will work.
The photo above exemplifies what all the Freedom Rides and bus boycotts and sit-ins and marches were about. A simple thing. An ordinary choice to be comfortable as one goes about his day. A man -- in this case, a black man who happens to be president of the United States -- sits in the front half of a bus.
This is all you need to know about civil rights.
When you find yourself getting discouraged about how slowly things change, think of this photo. Then look at the one below, taken in 1956, a year after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955.
What a prophetic message! It was taken from Dr. King’s Nobel Prize Lecture, delivered December 11, 1964. For the complete lecture, go here.
Martin Luther King led extensive civil rights sit-ins throughout the South in the 1950s and 1960s. He was pastor, for a time, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he helped coordinate sit-ins at lunch counters and boycotts of businesses refusing to serve all people.
As a clergyman preparing sermons, he drew heavily from the Bible for words that would be meaningful to his congregation, including this quote from the book of Amos, chapter five, verse 24.
A reference to the "mighty stream" of justice is found in a number of his sermons, as well as in his famous I Have a Dream speech, given before a crowd of more than 100,000 people gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Here is how he uses the stream image in his I Have a Dream speech:
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Go here for the full text and audio version of the I Have a Dream speech. This is the only place where I was able to find a video version.
These lines are taken from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written April 16, 1963, and addressed to fellow clergy. Here is the passage, in context:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.
The sixth in a series of quotations from the sermons, speeches and letters of Martin Luther King, Jr., inscribed on the wall behind his statue at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC.
King was said to have used this sentence in numerous sermons, but also in his address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (August 16, 1967), as published in the book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.”
For an excellent resource site on Martin Luther King, go to http://www.civilrights.org/resources/mlk/
Quoting Georgetown University Professor Anthony Clark Arend:
Dr. King made these remarks in a speech to 26,000 African-American high school and college students on April 18, 1959. The students had come to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate their support for the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. (The speech can be found in I Have Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World (James Melvin Washington, ed., 1992, p. 34).
For an excellent resource site on Martin Luther King's life and work, go to http://www.civilrights.org/resources/mlk/
This is the fourth in a series of photos I took of quotations inscribed in the granite wall behind the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., part of the new MLK Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
King used this sentence in a number of speeches, including the commencement address for Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in June, 1965. Here is the context in which it was used:
Yes, we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow.
Keeping watch above his own.
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.” With this faith we will be ble to hew out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, and speed up the day when, in the words of the prophet Amos, “Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This is the third in a series of 12 quotations engraved in granite at the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. This is taken from King's acceptance speech for receiving tyhe Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1964.
I will try to post one quotation a week. Click on Martin Luther King quotations in the index on the right, for the complete set.
The second of twelve photos I took of panels containing memorable quotes from the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, at the site of the King Memorial.
According to Wikipedia, King responded with these words in response to an accusation that his activism was "disturbing the peace," as quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Stephen B. Oates, 1982).