There may have been no greater orator in the history of the United States than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His speeches ignited audiences and challenged Americans to act upon systemic injustices in the world around them.
Dr. King’s speeches are still memorized and studied in K-12 and college classrooms across the country – and around the world. ThinkFives surveyed Peace Institutes and MLK Centers to identify these five speeches, which are considered some of his most famous and memorable.
“Our God is Marching On” – Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965
According to the King Institute at Stanford, “the speech was delivered after the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, historians consider King’s triumphant deliverance of his ‘Our God is Marching On’ speech to mark the end of the civil rights movement’s first phase focusing on legal and political rights. The movement would later focus on fighting for economic equality.”
- “And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead.”
- “We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.”
- “He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.”
- “I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” – Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
Exactly one year before his assassination, Dr. King condemned the Vietnam War at a time when a majority of Americans still supported the effort. Dr. King was criticized for the speech, considered one of his most controversial, and lost supporters for being too political.
The speech created a firestorm of criticism. According to his advisor, Clarence B. Jones, “people were saying, ‘Well you know you’re a civil rights leader, mind your own business. Talk about what you know about.’”
According to the MLK Institute, “this speech was a stinging rebuke of the United States’ military aggression in Vietnam and its rising profile as a violent defender of democracy and world peace throughout our global community.”
- “For those who ask the question, ‘Aren’t you a civil rights leader?’ and thereby mean to exclude me from the peace movement, I have this further answer.”
- “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
- “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
“Give Us the Ballot,” Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, May 17, 1957: Washington, D.C.
Speaking at a large civil rights rally at the mall in Washington DC, Dr. King exhorted the president and members of Congress to ensure voting rights for African Americans and indicts both political parties for betraying the cause of justice:
Dr. King suggested that the “betrayal” of disenfranchised Americans by all politicians offered the ultimate argument for why the struggle for voting rights is essential to the struggle for social justice, environmental protection, and peace.
- “The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners.”
- “Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”
- “Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954. (That’s right)”
- “In this juncture of our nation’s history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership. If we are to solve the problems ahead and make racial justice a reality, this leadership must be fourfold”
“I’ve been to the Mountaintop” – Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968
An article by the Buckley School paints a picture of the day this speech was delivered. The article reads, “A thunderstorm outside. A restless crowd inside, at the Mason Temple where people had been waiting 90 minutes for the arrival of the speaker they revered.
A speaker who was tired, losing his voice—and delayed leaving the Atlanta airport because the plane’s cargo had to be inspected again after threats to his life were made.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a 43 minute speech in Memphis, Tennessee. The next day, he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine motel.”
Dr. King’s last speech echoed his support for the Memphis sanitation workers and their strike for better pay and unionization. The speech showcased Dr. King’s work for economic justice.
- “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’”
- “Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement.”
- “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world.”
- “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’”
- “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … 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”
“I Have a Dream” – Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963
Perhaps no speech in US history is revered more than Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.” It is read annually in many history and speech classes – and well it should be. Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for an end to racism in the United States before a crowd of more than 250,000 people.
The speech rings like a sermon with references to the Bible, the US Constitution, and the Declaration of US Independence. It is a speech about the pain of African-American communities, brilliantly highlighting the injustices of the past while lighting a path for future hope.
- “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.”
How can you use Dr. King’s speeches in your classes?