This weekend seems like an appropriate time to look into the context of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.  A few years ago I took a look at several speeches and summarized the saga of his papers.  Today I turn to the speech he delivered in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march.  But before looking at the speech itself, several important points of context:

  • On February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson participated in a voting rights march in Marion, Alabama.  When Marion police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama state troopers began attacking the marchers, Jackson along with his mother and grandfather fled into a nearby cafe.  They were chased by police and beaten there, and when Jackson attempted to protect his mother, he was shot in the abdomen, a wound from which he died eight days later in a hospital in nearby Selma.  His death helped inspire the Selma to Montgomery marches.
  • March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” because as about 600 protesters began their march out of Selma, they were greeted by state and local lawmen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, attacked with billy clubs and tear gas, and chased back into the black churches of Selma where they had organized the march.  17 marchers, including current U.S. Representative John Lewis, were hospitalized, and another 50 were treated for other injuries.
  • On March 9, 1965, civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized another march from Selma to Montgomery with more than 1,500 participants, but when were once again met by the state police, they returned to Selma.  That night, a white minister named James Reeb was beaten to death by a group of segregationists in Selma.
  • At the conclusion of the final 5-day march, King delivered this speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, where a little over two years earlier George Wallace delivered his inaugural address, recognizing Montgomery as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and uttering his famous promise, “segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow  . . . segregation forever.”  (Wallace’s speech is available in its entirety at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.)
  • Viola Liuzzo watched the television coverage of Bloody Sunday and felt compelled to help the campaign for voting rights, so she traveled from Detroit to Alabama.  She helped drive marchers between Selma and Montgomery, and when she was returning to Selma on March 25, she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • All of these tragedies contributed to the call for passage of what became the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Come back next week for a look at LBJ’s speech before Congress.

With that context, now a look at the speech itself.  King incorporated a number of references, many of which would have been familiar to his audience and some of which have interesting sources themselves.  (My quotations are generally longer than what King included, to keep with my theme of context.)

  • Despite the complex path of the Selma to Montgomery march, King decided to make reference to the freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
  • King pointed to noted historian C. Vann Woodward and his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which argued that segregation was a tool designed by the white ruling class to perpetuate low labor costs.  King included this analysis of the campaign against the Populist movement of the late 19th century: “To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society.  I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote.  Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy.  They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement.  They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level.  And that did it.  That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.”
  • King quoted from the 1921 poem of James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
  • King acknowledged those who had already died in the nonviolent civil rights struggle: Medgar Evers, three civil rights workers in Mississippi last summer, William Moore, the Reverend James Reeb, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and four little girls in the church of God in Birmingham on Sunday morning.
  • King quoted Amos 5:24: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
  • King concluded with a series of questions about how long it would take to achieve justice — the well-known “How long? Not long” section.
    • He first cited the 19th century William Cullen Bryant poem “The Battle-Field,” which says, “Truth crushed to earth, shall rise again; / The eternal years of God are hers; / But Error, wounded, writhes in pain, / And dies among his worshippers.”
    • He quoted 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in The French Revolution, “For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live forever.”
    • He quoted the poem of James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis“: “Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record / One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word; / 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 see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great, / Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate, / But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din, / List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,— / ‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin’.”
    • He paraphrased an 1853 sermon by Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.  The arc is a long one.  My eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight.  I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
    • King concluded by reciting Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: / His truth is marching on.”

    In looking back at this speech, I gather strength from how often King invoked truth.  Happy 88th birthday, MLK!

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