Martin Luther King, Give Us the Ballot, Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “Give Us the Ballot” speech during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on May 17, 1957. Photo credit: © Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA Wire

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we asked our editors to reflect on their favorite quotes from King and how they resonate today.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we asked our staff to reflect on their favorite quotes from King and how they resonate today.

This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. …  These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds. 

— From Give Us the Ballot, delivered May 17, 1957

Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous Give Us the Ballot speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957 on the occasion of the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He passionately argued that protecting and expanding voting rights were key to fighting the injustices of segregation, inequality in education, lynching, and the many other consequences of America’s “long night of human captivity.” He said, in part: 

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.

Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.

Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.

Sixty-five years have passed, and our elected representatives still suffer from the “high blood pressure of words” and “anemia of deeds” diagnosed by King. The integrity of our electoral system is under relentless attack in a country and political system hobbled by corruption, corporate greed, and complacency among elected officials.

We lack now as we did then “strong, moral, and courageous leadership,” and that deficit cuts across party lines. King, in his speech, had strong words for the warring factions of his day. Of the “quasi-liberalism” of the North, he said:

It is a liberalism so bent on seeing all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side. It is a liberalism that is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed. It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. 

He also called on the white moderates of the South to take a stand against the “closed-minded reactionaries” in their region’s leadership: 

These persons gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas and by deliberately appealing to the deepest hate responses within the human mind. It is my firm belief that this close-minded, reactionary, recalcitrant group constitutes a numerical minority.

Despite all the odds against him, however, King ends his speech with hope. Despite the “mountain of opposition” he saw before him, he encouraged his supporters to stand “with dignity and honor and [save] Western civilization in her darkest hour.” — Bethany

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. 

— From Keep Moving From This Mountain, delivered April 10, 1960 

King delivered this speech on the occasion of Founder’s Day at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s liberal arts college, in Atlanta, GA.

As a white woman, I have been given so many privileges that I often can run, if not fly. It’s important that we, as a society, make room for those who have to crawl forward because we have not given them the equity and equality they deserve. — Darlena

The tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.

— Martin Luther King Jr. Press Conference on July 5, 1963

This is not soaring rhetoric, nor an example of King’s most stirring and eloquent statements. But it is about as relevant as it gets. And the more so because, unlike at the time spoken, it is now a majority (the GOP plus Manchin and Sinema, that we know of) of senators who are standing against voting rights, taking cover behind preservation of the filibuster as if it were some sacrosanct constitutional provision (which, of course, it is not). And a majority of a Supreme Court that, in the Shelby decision, chose in utmost cynicism to pretend that voting rights no longer needed protection because, well, we’ve come so far. And majorities in virtually every state under GOP control that have opened fire on voting rights, at least for the poor and the voters of color that are in their cynical, Nietzschian crosshairs.

So we find ourselves in the same ugly, racist place, teetering on the brink of full-on sham “democracy” at best, fascist authoritarianism at worst, with civil war a possibility now being gamed out by other nations, starting with our northern neighbor, Canada. And no MLK to rescue or uplift us, only quotes. We’re going to have to pick up where he left off and make our own quotes now. And put our own lives on the line. — Jonathan 

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.  

— From I Have a Dream, delivered August 28, 1963

King delivered his most famous speech at the end of a tumultuous summer in a tumultuous year. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi in June. In May, fire hoses and police dogs were unleashed on young Black protesters in Birmingham, AL. A wave of Klan bombings that followed set off riots that resulted in Birmingham’s occupation by federal troops. King had been jailed in Birmingham in April. 

The Kennedy administration was opposed to the March on Washington, fearing a white political backlash. Ultimately, the administration came to be seen by many civil rights activists as an overly controlling force shaping the form of the protest.

I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little Black boys and little Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

Less than a month after King spoke those words in Washington, four Black girls were killed in Birmingham when their church, a center for civil rights organizing, was bombed.

Nearly 60 years later, people of all colors carry signs that say “Black Lives Matter.” What a poignant thing to say.

Why does this even need to be said?  

You can find the answer in the bored expression on a cop’s face as he kneels on a Black man’s neck, patiently waiting for him to die, looking around at nothing in particular, the way people do while waiting in line at a store.

You can find the answer in the headline of a Tulsa newspaper that appeared one month after the incident described above: “African Americans ‘Probably Ought to Be Shot More’ Top Tulsa Officer Said.” And the officer claimed that, according to all research, “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.”

Martin Luther King Jr, Civil Rights Act of 1964

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a press conference at the US Capitol on March 26, 1964, about the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo credit: Marion S. Trikosko / LOC

You can find the answer in the way police prey on Black motorists. Their lives don’t matter — but their money does: When the Department of Justice investigated the causes of riots that followed the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, they found that the more tickets the cops wrote, the more money they earned for the city and the more brownie points they earned for themselves. (See WhoWhatWhy’s excerpts from The Ferguson Report.

Despite these ongoing horrors, you don’t have to be a Pollyanna to see realistic reasons for hope: Growing numbers of Black faces everywhere in positions of power. They are an inspiring sight. Their existence shows children of color that they, too, can become leaders. But, whatever they become, they will know their lives matter. Black lives matter. You’re damned right, Black lives matter. — Milicent

Increasingly frustrated by the pace of change, King in 1964 published his book Why We Can’t Wait, which used his Letter From A Birmingham Jail as its foundation and looked back at the events of the previous year. He took aim once again at those counseling caution instead of direct action.

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up unjust posture;  but as Reinhold Neibuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

King went on to address those who urged him to be patient.

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Although the Civil Rights Act was finally passed later that year, King was well beyond frustrated by 1968. He was infuriated by the continuing hold of white supremacy, enraged by American imperialism and the Vietnam War, and committed to fighting economic injustice. In the days before his assassination, he was penning a sermon he called Why America May Go To Hell. — Dan

Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash. 

— From Where Do We Go From Here, King’s final book, published in 1967

King was referring to the automatic political attack from segregationists and the right wing on the civil rights movement after the successful passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills. In this light, the Trumpist attack on racial justice and democratic institutions can best be understood as an organized reaction to the Obama presidency. 

But it holds for all politics — the religious right counterattacks any gains in gay or women’s rights, the Chamber of Commerce assaults labor gains, and the American Petroleum Institute undermines stronger environmental rules and climate protections. The destruction of voting rights, where the modern civil rights movement began, threatens to crash the system entirely. — Richard 

A riot is the language of the unheard. 

— From The Other America, delivered March 16, 1968

Martin Luther King Jr, 1964

King during a press conference in 1964. Photo credit: Dick DeMarsico / World Telegram & Sun / LOC

The headmaster of my boarding school, Robert McCormick, was a Freedom Rider in the 1960s before he started the school in 1970.

He told me many stories about those remote Mississippi towns; here is just one: 

On his first stop, Bobby was given the home of an elderly Black woman who wanted to help. She graciously moved to a one-room shack without water — shared with a half-dozen relatives — so Bobby could stay alone in her home (which was also a waterless one-room shack) while he worked with local Black communities.

Bobby was just 19 years old at the time, just a kid himself, really. On his first day, he was speaking with the younger Black men who were assigned to watch over him because Freedom Riders were often beaten and forced out of town by local law enforcement. As they spoke, a very old man in a tattered suit walked up from the long dirt road. The man said he was 90 and was wearing his church clothes because he wanted to register to vote in honor of his mother, who had been a slave.

He seemed pretty frail but he was determined to register for his mother.

Bobby drove them both to the registration office in the town courthouse. When they pulled up to the stairway in front of the building’s entrance, they saw the sheriff and three deputies standing along the stairs like a uniformed gauntlet.

As Bobby and the old man sat in the car, the old man began to literally shake with fear. Bobby said, “It’s OK; we don’t have to do this.” The old man was firm; he opened the door to get out of the car. Bobby ran around to help him onto the sidewalk. The sheriff and deputies stared down at the two of them. A tiny old Black man with grey hair in a dusty suit and a tall, skinny white kid in jeans and a T-shirt. 

The old man’s legs buckled from fear, and he fell back in the car. Bobby again told him, “We don’t have to do this.” The man looked up at the men on the stairs and said, “I know… I just need you to help me because I’m scared and my legs won’t work.” Bobby, not knowing what else to do, reached into the car, picked him up in his arms, and carried him up the stairs past the sheriff and his deputies.

It’s hard to imagine all this was just a few decades ago. To this day I still think about that fierce old man. — Sean 


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