Radio announcer: Good evening, and welcome to the lecture hall. Tonight, WAMF, in Amherst, presents the prerecorded broadcast of a talk given last spring by Dr. Martin Luther King. As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King is a leading spokesman for the Civil Rights movement in America. His talk, given at the New School for Social Research, is entitled “The Summer of Our Discontent.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Mr. Chairman, members of the faculty and members of the student body of this great institution of learning, ladies and gentlemen: I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight and to have the opportunity to be a part of this very significant lecture series. It is always a very rich and stimulating experience when I can take a brief break from the day-to-day demands of our struggle in the South and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with college and university students and concerned people all over this country, and so I am very happy to be here and to share with you this evening.
There is a question that I get a great deal as I journey across the country. People are still talking about 1963 and they constantly raise the question: Why did things happen in the civil rights movement as they happened in ’63? I have tried to do a little thinking on this, and I would like to share some of my thoughts with you as you deal with this overall problem in this vital course. I would like to use as a subject: The Negro Revolution – Why 1963?
The bitterly cold winter of 1962 lingered throughout the opening months of 1963, touching the land with chill and frost, and then was replaced by a placid spring. America awaited a quiet summer. That it would be pleasant, they had no doubt. The worst of it would be the nightmare created by sixty million cars, all apparently trying to reach the same destination at the same time. Fifty million families looked forward to the pleasure of two hundred million vacations in the American tradition of the frenetic hunt for relaxation.
It would be a pleasant summer because, in the mind of the average man, there was little cause for concern. The blithe outlook about the state of the nation was reflected from as high up as the White House. The administration readied a tax-reduction bill. Business and employment were at comfortable levels. [5:00] Money was, for many Americans, plentiful.
As summer approached, even the heartless cold had relented. Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate in American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s second revolution, the Negro Revolution, had begun.
Because there is more to come; because American society is bewildered by the spectacle of the Negro in revolt; because the dimensions are vast and the implications deep in a nation with twenty million Negroes, it is important to understand the history that is being made today.
Why did this revolution occur in 1963? Negroes had for decades endured evil. In the words of the poet, they had long asked: “Why must the blackness of nighttime collect in our mouth? Why must we always taste grief in our blood?” Any time would seem to have been the right time. Why 1963?
The Negro had been deeply disappointed over the slow pace of school desegregation. He knew that in 1954 the highest court in the land had handed down a decree calling for desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed.” He knew that this edict from the Supreme Court had been heeded with all deliberate delay. At the beginning of 1963, nine years after this historic decision, approximately nine percent of southern Negro students were attending integrated schools. If this pace were maintained, it would be the year 2054 before integration in southern schools would be a reality.
In its wording, the Supreme Court decision had revealed an awareness that attempts would be made to evade its intent. The phrase “all deliberate speed” did not mean that another century should be allowed to unfold before we released Negro children from the narrow pigeonhole of the segregated schools. It meant that, giving some courtesy and consideration to the need for softening old attitudes and outdated customs, democracy must press ahead, out of the past of ignorance and intolerance, and into the present of educational opportunity and moral freedom.
Yet the statistics make it abundantly clear that the segregationists of the South remained undefeated by this decision. In every section of Dixie, the announcement of the high court had been met with declarations of defiance. Once recovered from their initial outrage, these defenders of the status quo had seized the offensive to impose their own schedule of change. The progress that was supposed to have been achieved with deliberate speed had created change for less than two percent of Negro children in most areas of the South, and not even one-tenth of one percent in some parts of the deepest South.
In order, then, to understand the deep disillusion of the Negro in 1963, one must examine his contrasting emotions at the time of the decision and during the nine years that followed. One must understand the pendulum swing between the hope that arose when the edict was handed down and the disappointment that followed the failure to bring it to life.
A second reason for the outburst in 1963 was rooted in the failure of both political parties to live up to their campaign promises. [10:00] From the city of Los Angeles in 1960, the Democratic Party had written an historic and sweeping civil rights pronouncement into its platform. From Chicago, the Republican Party had been generous in its convention vows on civil rights, although its candidate had made no great effort in his campaign to convince a nation that he would redeem his party’s promises.
Then 1961 and ‘62 arrived, with both parties marking time in the cause of justice. In the Congress, reactionary Republicans were still doing business with the Dixiecrats, and the feeling was growing among Negroes that the administration had oversimplified and underestimated the civil rights issue. While Negroes were being appointed to some significant jobs and social hospitality was being extended at the White House to Negro leaders, the tattered dreams of the masses remained in rags. The Negro felt that he recognized the same old bone that had been tossed to him in the past – only now it was being handed to him on a platter, with courtesy.
The administration had fashioned its primary approach to discrimination in the South around a series of lawsuits chiefly designed to protect the right to vote. Opposition toward action on other fronts had begun to harden. With each new protest, we were advised, sometimes privately and sometimes in public, to call off our efforts and channel all energies into registering voters. On each occasion we would agree with the importance of voting rights, but patiently seek to explain that Negroes did not want to neglect all other rights while one was selected for concentrated attention.
It was necessary to conclude that our argument was not persuading the administration any more than its logic was prevailing with us. Negroes had manifested their faith by giving a substantial majority of their votes for President Kennedy. They had expected more of him than of the previous administration. In no sense had President Kennedy betrayed his promises, yet his administration appeared to believe it was doing as much as was politically possible and had, by its positive deeds, earned enough credit to coast on civil rights. Politically, perhaps, this was not a surprising conclusion. How many people understood, during the first two years of the Kennedy administration, that the Negroes’ “now” was becoming as militant as the segregationists’ “never”? Eventually the president would set aside political considerations and rise to the level of his own unswerving moral commitment. But this was still in the future.
No discussion of the influences that bore on the thinking of the Negro in 1963 would be complete without some attention to the relationship of this revolution to international events. Throughout the upheavals of Cold War politics, Negroes had seen their government go to the brink of nuclear conflict more than once. The justification for risking the annihilation of the human race was always expressed in terms of America’s willingness to go to any lengths to preserve freedom. To the Negro, that readiness for heroic measures in defense of liberty disappeared or became tragically weak when the threat was within our own borders and was concerned with the Negro’s liberty. While the Negro is not so selfish as to stand isolated in concern for his own dilemma, ignoring the ebb and flow of events around the world, there is a certain bitter irony in the picture of his country championing freedom in foreign lands and failing to ensure that freedom to twenty million of its own.
From beyond the borders of his own land, the Negro had been inspired by another powerful force. He had watched the decolonization and liberation of nations in Africa and Asia since World War II. He knew that yellow, black, and brown people had felt for years that the American Negro was too passive, [15:00] unwilling to take strong measures to gain his freedom. The American Negro saw, in the land from which he had been snatched and thrown into slavery, a great pageant of political progress. He realized that just thirty years ago there were only three independent nations in the whole of Africa. He knew that by 1963 more than thirty-four African nations had risen from colonial bondage. The Negro saw black statesmen voting on vital issues in the United Nations and knew that in many cities of his own land he was not permitted to take that significant walk to the ballot box. He saw black kings ruling from palaces and knew he had been condemned to move from small ghettos to larger ones. Witnessing the drama of Negro progress elsewhere in the world, witnessing a level of conspicuous consumption at home exceeding anything in our history, it was natural that by 1963 Negroes would rise with resolution and demand a share of governing power, and living conditions measured by American standards rather than by the standards of colonial impoverishment.
An additional and decisive fact confronted the Negro and helped to bring him out of the houses, into the streets, out of the trenches and into the front lines. This was a recognition that one hundred years had passed since emancipation, with no profound effect on his plight.
With the dawn of 1963, plans were afoot all over the land to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. In Washington, a federal commission had been established to mark the event. Governors of states and mayors of cities had utilized the date to enhance their political image by naming commissions, receiving committees, issuing statements, planning state pageants, sponsoring dinners, endorsing social activities. Champagne, this year, would bubble on countless tables. Appropriately attired, over thick cuts of roast beef, legions would listen as luminous phrases were spun to salute the great democratic landmark which 1963 represented.
But alas! All the talk and publicity accompanying the centennial only served to remind the Negro that he still wasn’t free, that he still lived a form of slavery disguised by certain niceties of complexity. The pen of the Great Emancipator had moved the Negro into the sunlight of physical freedom, but actual conditions had left him behind in the shadow of political, psychological, social, economic, and intellectual bondage.
The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. In the past two decades, changes in our country’s economic structure have obscured the fact that the Negro’s medium income is half that of the white man. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the basis of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty. The average Negro is born into want and deprivation. His struggle to escape his circumstances is hindered by color discrimination. He is deprived of normal education and normal social and economic opportunities. When he seeks opportunity, he is so often told, in effect, to lift himself by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.
By 1963, most of America’s working population had forgotten the Great Depression or had never known it. The slow and steady growth of unemployment had touched some of the white working force but the proportion was still not more than one in twenty. [20:00] This was not true for the Negro. There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship. He knows this because he has worked in shops that employ him exclusively because the pay is below a living standard. He knows it is not an accident of geography that wage rates in the South are significantly lower than those in the North. He knows that the spotlight recently focused on the growth in the number of women who work is not a phenomenon in Negro life. The average Negro woman has always had to work to help keep her family in food and clothes.
To the Negro, as 1963 approached, the economic structure of society appeared to be so ordered that a precise sifting of jobs took place. The lowest-paid employment and the most tentative jobs were reserved for him. If he sought to change his position, he was walled in by the tall barrier of discrimination. As summer came, more than ever the spread of unemployment had visible and tangible dimensions to the colored American. Equality meant dignity and dignity demanded a job that was secured and a pay check that lasted throughout the week.
The Negro’s economic problem was compounded by the emergence and growth of automation. Since discrimination and lack of education confined him to unskilled and semi-skilled labor, the Negro was and remains the first to suffer in these days of great technological development. The Negro knew all too well that there was not in existence the kind of vigorous retraining program that could readily help him to grapple with the magnitude of his problem.
The symbol of the job beyond the great wall was construction work. The Negro, whose slave labor helped to build a nation, was being told by employers on the one hand and unions on the other that there was no place for him in this industry. Billions were being spent on city, state, and national building for which the Negro paid taxes but could draw no pay check. No one who saw the spanning bridges, the grand old mansions, the sturdy docks and stout factories of the South could question the Negro’s ability to build if he were given a chance for apprenticeship training. It was plain, hard, raw discrimination that shut him out of decent employment.
In 1963, the Negro, who had realized for many years that he was not truly free, awoke from a stupor of inaction with the cold dash of realization that 1963 meant one hundred years after Lincoln gave his autograph to the cause of freedom.
Simple logic made it painfully clear that if this centennial were to be meaningful, it must be observed not as a celebration, but rather as a commemoration of the one moment in the country’s history when a bold, brave start had been made, and a rededication to the obvious fact that urgent business was at hand – the resumption of that noble journey toward the goals reflected in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
Yet not all of these forces conjoined could have brought about the massive and largely bloodless Revolution of 1963 if there had not been at hand a philosophy and a method worthy of its goals. Nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, but it found its natural home in this land, where refusal to cooperate with injustice was an ancient and honorable tradition and where Christian forgiveness was written into the minds and hearts of good men. [25:00] Tested in Montgomery, Alabama during the winter of 1955 and 6, and toughened throughout the South in the eight ensuing years, nonviolent resistance had become, by 1963, the logical force in the greatest mass-action crusade for freedom that had ever occurred in American history.
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, that cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.
For a hundred years since emancipation, Negroes had searched for the elusive path to freedom. They knew that they had to fashion a body of tactics suitable for their unique and special conditions. The words of the Constitution had declared them free, but life had told them that they were a twice-burdened people – they lived in the lowest stratum of society and within it they were additionally imprisoned by a caste of color.
For decades the long and winding trails led to dead ends. Booker T. Washington, in the dark days that followed the Reconstruction, advised them to, “Let down your buckets where you are.” Be content, he said in effect, with doing well what the times permit you to do at all. However, this path, they soon felt, had too little freedom in its present and too little promise in its future.
Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his earlier years at the turn of the century, urged the “talented tenth” to rise and pull behind it the mass of the race. His doctrine served somewhat to counteract the apparent resignation of the Booker T. Washington philosophy. Yet, in the very nature of the Du Bois outlook there was no role for the whole people. It was a tactic for an aristocratic elite who would themselves be benefited while leaving behind the “untalented” ninty per cent.
After the First World War, Marcus Garvey made an appeal to the race that had the virtue of rejecting concepts of inferiority. He called for a return to Africa and a resurgence of race pride. His movement attained mass dimensions, and released a powerful emotional response because it touched a truth which had long been dormant in the mind of the Negro. There was reason to be proud of their heritage as well as of their bitterly won achievements in America. Yet his plan was doomed because an exodus to Africa in the twentieth century by a people who had struck roots for three and a half centuries in the New World did not have the ring of progress.
With the death of the Garvey movement, the way opened for the development of a doctrine which held the center of the stage for almost thirty years. This was the doctrine, consistently championed and ably conducted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, that placed its reliance on the Constitution and the federal law. Under this doctrine, it was felt that the federal courts were the vehicle that could be utilized to combat oppression, particularly in southern states, which were operating under the guise of legalistics to keep the Negro down.
Under brilliant and dedicated leadership, the N.A.A.C.P. moved relentlessly to win many victories in the courts. The most notable of these established the right of the Negro to participate in national elections, striking down evasive devices such as the “grandfather clause,” white primaries and others. Beyond doubt, the doctrine of change through legal recourse reached flood tide in the education decisions. [30:00] Yet the failure of the nation, over a decade, to implement the majestic implications of these decisions caused the slow ebb of the Negro’s faith in litigation as a dominant method to achieve his freedom. In his eyes, the doctrine of legal change had become the doctrine of slow token change and, as a sole weapon of struggle, now proved its unsuitability. At the time of this growing realization, during the mid-fifties, Negroes were in the grip of a crisis. Their movement no longer had a promising basic doctrine, a detailed and charted course pointing the way to their freedom.
It is an axiom of social change that no revolution can take place without a methodology suited to the circumstances of the period. During the fifties many voices offered substitutes for the tactic of legal recourse. Some called for a colossal blood bath to cleanse the nation’s ills. To support their advocacy of violence and its incitement, they pointed to an historical tradition reaching back from the American Civil War to Spartacus in Rome. But the Negro in the south in 1955, assessing the power of the forces arrayed against him, could not perceive the slightest prospect of victory in this approach. He was unarmed, unorganized, untrained and, most important, psychologically and morally unprepared for the deliberate spilling of blood. Although his desperation had prepared him with the courage to die for freedom if necessary, he was not willing to commit himself to racial suicide with no prospect of victory.
Perhaps even more vital in the Negro’s resistance to violence was the force of his deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. In Montgomery, after a courageous woman, Rosa Parks, had refused to move to the back of the bus, and so began the revolt that led to the boycott of 1955 and 56, the Negro’s developing campaign against that city’s racial injustice was based in the churches of the community. Throughout the South, for some years prior to Montgomery, the Negro church had emerged with increasing impact in the civil rights struggle. Negro ministers, with a growing awareness that the true witness of a Christian life is the projection of a social gospel, had accepted leadership in the fight for racial justice, had played important roles in a number of N.A.A.C.P. chapters, and were making their influence felt throughout the freedom movement.
The doctrine they preached was a nonviolent doctrine. It was not a doctrine which made their followers yearn for revenge but which called upon them to champion change. It was not a doctrine which asked an eye for an eye but one which summoned men to seek to open the eyes of blind prejudice. The Negro turned his back on force not only because he knew he could not win his freedom through physical force but also because he believed that through physical force he could lose his soul.
Fortunately, history does not pose problems without eventually producing solutions. The disenchanted, the disadvantaged and the disinherited seem, at times of deep crisis, to summon up some sort of genius that enables them to perceive and capture the appropriate weapons to carve out their destiny. Such was the peaceable weapon of nonviolent direct action, which materialized almost overnight to inspire the Negro, and was seized in his outstretched hands with a powerful grip.
Nonviolent action, the Negro saw, was the way to supplement, not replace, the process of change through legal recourse. It was a way to divest himself of passivity without arraying himself in vindictive force. Acting in concert with fellow Negroes to assert himself as a citizen, he would embark on a militant program to demand the rights which were his: in the streets, on the buses, in the stores, parks and other public facilities. [35:00]
The religious tradition of the Negro had shown him that the nonviolent resistance of the early Christians had constituted a moral offensive of such overriding power that it shook the Roman Empire. American history had taught him that nonviolence in the form of boycotts and such incidents as the Boston Tea Party had confounded the British monarchy and laid the basis for freeing the colonies from unjust domination. Within his own century, the nonviolent ethic had muzzled the guns of the British Empire in India and freed more than three hundred and fifty million people from colonialism.
Like his predecessors, the Negro was willing to risk martyrdom in order to move and stir the social conscience of his community and the nation. Instead of submitting to organized cruelty in thousands of dark jail cells and on countless shadowed street corners, he would force his oppressor to commit his brutality openly, in the light of day, with the rest of the world looking on.
Acceptance of nonviolent direct action was a proof of a certain sophistication on the part of the Negro masses; for it showed that they dared to break with the old, ingrained concepts of our society. The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or that to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense. The argument that nonviolence is a coward’s refuge lost its force as its heroic and often perilous acts uttered their wordless but convincing rebuttal in Montgomery, in the sit-ins, on the freedom rides, and finally in Birmingham.
There is a powerful motivation when a suppressed people enlist in an army that marches under the banners of nonviolence. A nonviolent army has a magnificent universal quality. To join an army that trains its adherents in the methods of violence, you must be of a certain age. But in Birmingham, some of the most valued foot soldiers were youngsters ranging from elementary to teenage high school and college students. For acceptance in the armies that maim and kill, one must be physically sound, possessed of straight limbs and accurate vision. But in Birmingham, the lame and the halt and the crippled could and did join up. Al Hibbler, the sightless singer, would never have been accepted in the United States Army or that of any nation, but he held a commanding position in our ranks.
In armies of violence, there is a caste of rank. In Birmingham, outside of the few generals and lieutenants who necessarily directed and coordinated operations, the regiments of the demonstrator marched in democratic phalanx. Doctors marched with window clearers. Lawyers demonstrated; Ph.D’s and no-D’s were treated with perfect equality by the registrars of the nonviolence movement.
As the broadcasting profession will confirm, no shows are so successful as those which allow for audience participation. In order to be somebody, people must feel themselves part of something. In the nonviolent army, there is room for everyone who wants to join up. There is no color distinction. There is no examination, no pledge, except that, as a soldier in the armies of violence is expected to inspect his carbine and keep it clean, nonviolent soldiers are called upon to examine their greatest weapons: their heart, their conscience, their courage and sense of justice. [40:00]
Nonviolence had tremendous psychological importance to the Negro. He had to win and to vindicate his dignity in order to merit and enjoy his self-esteem. He had to let white men know that the picture of him as a clown – irresponsible, resigned and believing in his own inferiority – was a stereotype that no longer held validity. This method was grasped by the Negro masses because it embodied the dignity of struggle, of moral conviction and self-sacrifice. The Negro was able to face his adversary, to concede to him a physical advantage and to defeat him because the superior force of the oppressor had become powerless.
To measure what this meant to the Negro may not be easy. But I am convinced that the courage and discipline with which Negro thousands accepted nonviolence healed the internal wounds of Negro millions who did not themselves march in the streets or sit in the jails of the south. One need not participate directly in order to be involved. For the Negro all over this nation, to identify with the movement, to have pride in those who were the principals, and to give moral, financial or spiritual support was to restore to him some of the pride and honor which had been stripped from him over the centuries.
Now I would not want to exaggerate the achievements of the nonviolent movement. Certainly there have been those difficult moments, and there have been temporary setbacks at times in the nonviolent movement, and there have been those moments that the support could not be mobilized for the “fill the jail” cry that often went out in the nonviolent movement. But even so, it has moved along in a significant and powerful way. When we speak of filling the jails, we are talking of a tactic to be flexibly applied. No responsible person would promise to fill all jails everywhere at any time. Leaders indulge in bombast if they do not take all circumstances into account before calling upon their people to make a maximum sacrifice. Filling jails, as we have often sought to do, to dramatize the issue and place it before the conscience in southern communities, means that thousands of people must leave their jobs, perhaps to lose them, put off responsibilities, undergo harrowing psychological experiences for which law-abiding people are not routinely prepared. The miracle of nonviolence lies in the degree to which people will sacrifice under its inspiration, when the call is based on judgement.
Negroes are human, not superhuman. Like all people, they have differing personalities, diverse financial interests and varied aspirations. There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will go over to the other side. These facts should distress no one. Every minority and every people has its share of opportunists, traitors, freeloaders and escapists. The hammer blows of discrimination, poverty and segregation must warp and corrupt some. No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy. The real issue is whether in the great mass the dominant characteristics are decency, honor and courage.
In 1963, once again life was proof that Negroes had their heroes, their masses of decent people, along with their lost souls. The doubts that millions had felt as to the efficacy of the nonviolent way were dissolved. And the Negro saw that by proving the sweeping and majestic power of nonviolence to bring about the beloved community, it might be possible for him to set an example to a whole world caught up in conflict.
In the entire country there was no place to compare with Birmingham, Alabama. The largest industrial city in the South was dominated by conditions that had produced a police state, led by a man whose racist heart was as hard and cold as the steel produced in its steaming mills. [45:00] In the thirties, the name of Birmingham had become a symbol of bloodshed when trade unions sought to organize. It was a community in which human rights had been trampled for so long that fear and oppression were as thick in its atmosphere as the smog from its factories. Its financial interests were interlocked with a power structure which spread throughout the South and radiated into the North.
The challenge to nonviolent, direct action could not have been staged in a more appropriate arena. In the summer of 1963, an army brandishing only the healing sword of nonviolence humbled the most powerful, the most experienced and the most implacable segregationists in the country. Birmingham was to emerge with a delicately poised peace, but without awaiting its implementation the Negro seized the weapon which had won that dangerous peace and swept across the land with it, north and south.
The victory of the theory of nonviolent direct action was a fact. Faith in this method had come to maturity in Birmingham. As a result, the whole spectrum of the civil right struggle would undergo basic change. Nonviolence had passed the test of its steel in the fires of turmoil. The united power of southern segregation was the hammer. Birmingham was the anvil. And so, in a real sense, 1963 was a year of challenge, stemming from the civil rights movement.
1964 should be the year of creative response from the white community and the political power structure of our nation. Certainly the first response should be the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. It is now in the House of Representatives of Congress. And our concern should be to pass this bill, in its present form, without weakening it, or cutting it down, or watering it down at any point. And I am convinced that if people of good will all over this nation will work hard with determination and will mobilize their resources and bring about the necessary creative, moral, nonviolent pressure, this bill will be passed. But if there is not this kind of action and concern, it is possible that the bill will be watered down, particularly the public accommodations section and that section dealing with the F.E.P.C. And I am further convinced that without these sections the Bill will have no meaning. I feel that it would better to have no bill than to have a bill devoid of the public accommodations section and F.E.P.C. And if this bill does not pass, the already ugly sore of racial injustice on the body politic may suddenly turn malignant, and our nation may be inflicted with an incurable cancer that will totally destroy our political and moral health. And so this is the kind of creative response that must come in 1964.
It was on a day in June of 1963 that a great, intelligent young man stood before the nation, and he said in beautiful eloquent terms that the problem of racial injustice is a moral problem. And he went on to say that it is as old as the scriptures and modern as the Constitution. It is a question of whether we will treat our neighbors as we ourselves want to be treated. And on the heels of this, he presented to the Congress of our nation the most comprehensive civil rights package ever presented by any president of our nation. Since that time, this great man has been cut down by an assassin’s bullet and our nation as known a dark night. But I’m convinced that the greatest tribute that America can pay to the late President Kennedy is to bring this Civil Rights Bill into reality in its present form, without watering it down, and after the bill is passed, to see that it is vigorously enforced.
The other response must be the response of all individuals of good will, [50:00] which will cause them to work with determination in 1964 to see that all of the barriers of segregation and discrimination are removed from our nation. We must see that this is not only a sectional problem, but it is a national problem. No section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.
It is one thing for a white person of good will in the North to rise up with righteous indignation when a bus is burned with freedom riders in Anasten, Alabama, or when a church is bombed in Birmingham, killing four innocent, beautiful, unoffending girls. But it is also necessary for the white person of good will in the North to rise up with as much righteous indignation when a Negro cannot live in his neighborhood, or when a Negro cannot get a job in his firm, when a Negro cannot join his professional society, his fraternity, or her sorority. In short, if this problem is to be solved, there must be a sort of divine discontent, and a determination on the part of people of good will to work passionately and unrelentingly to see that the dignity and worth of the human personality will be respected. I have often mentioned the fact that if this problem is to be solved, somebody will have to get upset enough to work with determination to see that it is solved.
In every academic discipline there are certain technical words that soon become clichés and stereotypes. And I need not mention to you that every academic discipline has its technical vocabulary. And certainly modern psychology has a word that is used probably more than any other word in psychology. It is the word, “maladjusted.” This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. And certainly we all want to live the well-adjusted life, in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you as I move to my conclusion that there are certain things within our social order to which I’m proud to be maladjusted, and to which I hope all men of good will, will be maladjusted until the good society is realized.
I must honestly say that I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. For in a day when Sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations, and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation. And this is why I welcome the recent test ban treaty.
And so I say that there is a need in a real sense for a new organization in our world, and that is, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women who will be maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who, in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
With such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. With this kind of work and with this faith, 1964 can be a great year of achievement. With this faith, we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. [55:00] This will be the day when America becomes a great nation. It will be then truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Radio announcer: You have just heard the pre-recorded broadcast of a talk given last spring by Dr. Martin Luther King, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his talk, given at The New School For Social Research, was entitled “The Summer of Our Discontent.” This is Les Black inviting you to tune in every Tuesday and Wednesday evening at 7 o’clock for the Lecture Hall and reminding you to keep your FM dial set at 89.5 megacycles for educational radio in Amherst, WAMF, the voice of the students of Amherst College.