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More than a dream: The truth about Dr. King's message, method, and mission

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Yes. Dr. King had a dream. We have all heard it. We all know it. No one will let us forget it. But Dr. King was so much more than that dream. And that dream was so much more than the five to ten aspirational lines that have been extracted and chronically exploited for the last four decades. He was more than that. So much more. It is the totality of his work and legacy that should influence our thinking, dreaming, doing, and being.

He was inspirational, but he was not just inspirational. His message was one of hope, but not just one of hope. Don't get me wrong. Dr. King did indeed preach and inspire hope for Black people and for fellow activists. But he was also a thorn in the side of the flesh of the oppressor. He brought a message of justice and rebuke to white Americans, especially moderates. He was a drum major for justice. He was radical and relentless in his resistance. His hope was of an American dream that transcended the reality of the American nightmare that he and Blacks across the nation experienced on a daily basis at the hands of their fellow Americans. Fellow Americans much like the ones who quote him today while opposing his legacy through their incessant assaults on equity, justice, and humanity. He was very much the revolutionary back then that many people would hate today.

So, before you quote Dr. King, know Dr. King.

Before you exploit Dr. King, fully examine Dr. King.

Before you weaponize Dr. King’s words, understand Dr. King’s true mission.

Before you call him the model for racial peace and harmony, critically and honestly evaluate your personal commitment to the fight for racial justice, which is Dr. King’s true eternal legacy.

Are you committed or complicit?

Perhaps the most powerful resource in my own understanding of Dr. King’s message and mission was “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which I have read every year for the last five years. It is the seminal text in any person’s exploration and examination of Dr. King’s work. From this letter, and from countless other speeches, letters, and conversations from the course of his far-too-short civil rights leadership journey, come the following 25 lesser-shared quotes (listed in no particular order). These words give a far more complete and comprehensive picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and offer a compelling call to å radical and revolutionary pursuit of justice.

  1. “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  2. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

  3. “Today's expression in Montgomery is the expression of 50,000 people who are tired of being pushed around.”

  4. "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

  5. “We can't slow up because of our love for democracy and our love for America. Someone should tell Faulkner that the vast majority of the people on this globe are colored.”

  6. “...we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now. The wanton release of their known murderers would not discourage us. We are on the move now. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.”

  7. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

  8. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

  9. "Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest."

  10. "Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”

  11. “The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment. Who doubts that this toughness is one of man's greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

  12. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

  13. "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."

  14. “You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.”

  15. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

  16. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

  17. “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

  18. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

  19. “The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.”

  20. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

  21. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”

  22. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

  23. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

  24. “We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.”

And since we love “I Have a Dream” so much in America, read it. All of it. As you do, I draw your attention to and leave you with this lesser known, lesser quoted, lesser attributed portion of the globally famous speech:

25. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

Quoting Dr. King’s inspirational speeches and motivational words today is convenient and comfortable. For many, it creates a sense, false albeit, of goodness in the wrong-doer and righteousness in the evil. This is why, among many, his legacy has been relegated to an incomplete narrative that centers on feel-good messages of unity and hope. Those very messages that were largely intended to inspire and motivate the oppressed and beaten-down people that he worked tirelessly to uplift have instead been absconded and appropriated by those who actively maintain injustice every day by word and deed and have no intention of a racially harmonious, just, and equitable society - especially if it costs them something. If it costs them anything.

Let’s not forget, and let’s never be deceived.

They abused him before they appreciated him.

They killed him before they quoted him.

If you’re going to tell his story, tell all of it.

If you’re going to share his words, share all of them.

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