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5 of Martin Luther King's most powerful and inspiring speeches

Posted January 16

Since the 1980s, the third Monday of each January has been set aside to honor civil rights activist icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

King was well-known for his urging of peaceful, nonviolent protesting, such as boycotts and sit-ins, to promote civil rights change in the 1950s and 1960s up until he was assassinated in 1968.

And, of course, King was known for some of the most passionate and powerful speeches throughout American history.

Here’s a look back at some of the great speeches King gave.

“I have a dream …”

No speech King gave was more iconic and more remembered than the one he gave at the “March on Washington” on Aug. 28, 1963. The speech was given outside the Lincoln Memorial in front of more than 200,000 people.

King demanded equality while referencing the freedoms written in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution, as well as the efforts for rights given 100 years prior in the 1860s.

After citing the issues blacks were facing at the time, he turned to a vision he had for the future.

“And so 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,” King said. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“… 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.”

King’s Nobel Peace Prize Award speech

On Dec. 10, 1964, King gave a speech in Oslo, Sweden, after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In that speech, King mentioned the hardships that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King also mentioned other struggles amid concerns of war across the world and offered a glowing reminder of the power that peace brings:

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.”

“The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life"

In a speech delivered on April 4, 1967 — exactly one year before King was assassinated — King urged people to love and accept themselves to be able to help and serve others.

He began using a Hollywood term in movies of three-dimensional to be complete. In life, King said:

“There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth and height. Now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God. Now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life.”

"Drum Major Instinct"

In 1968, King gave a pair of memorable speeches and sermons that eerily provided powerful final sentiments. One came in February, known as the “Drum Major Instinct.”

In this sermon, King concluded talking about death and how he wouldn’t want to be remembered for his accomplishments (he gave this illustration in speeches before 1968 too), but for service that can carry on after his death.

“I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity,” he said.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

Another speech that delivered this idea shortly before his death came on April 3, 1968 — the night before King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.

Near the end of that memorable last speech, King said:

“I just want to do God's will and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over 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.”

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