By Emilie Plesset
Before he was assassinated at age 39, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, organized the 1963 March on Washington, advocated for civil disobedience and non-violent protest, and became one of the most influential figures in American history.
Fifty years after his death, here’s a look back at some of the civil rights leader’s most memorable speeches.
“I Have a Dream” – Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963
In his most famous speech, 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.
“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
“Our God is Marching On” – Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965
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.
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” – Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967
Exactly one year before his assassination, King condemned the Vietnam War at a time when a majority of Americans still supported the effort. King was criticized for the speech, considered one of his most controversial, and lost supporters for being too political.
“We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
“The Other America” – Stanford University, April 14, 1967
Just 10 days after declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War, King spoke to a crowd at Stanford University and advocated for economic and social equality. In his “Other America” speech, King described “two Americas” to highlight the growing poverty gap in the United States as a root of inequality. King gave a similar version of this speech at Michigan’s Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968.
“One America is beautiful for situation… millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair… They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
“I’ve been to the Mountaintop” – Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968
In his final speech, King addressed a church filled with striking sanitation workers who were protesting their low pay and working conditions. King emphasized the importance of unity and nonviolent protest in the fight for justice, no matter how painful the struggle.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And 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.”