This is a transcript of the second half of Dr. King’s speech to NATRA. August, 1967, Atlanta, Georgia.
We’ve built gargantuan bridges to span the seas and gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Through our airplanes we’ve logged distance and placed time in chains. And our jet planes have literally compressed time in minutes. Distances that once took weeks and months – Bob Hope talked about this new jet age in which we live once, he said it is an age to stop flight from Los Angeles, California to New York City, a distance of about 3,000 miles; and if on taking off in Los Angeles you develop hiccups, you will hic in Los Angeles and cup in New York City.
You know it is possible, because of the time difference, to take a non-stop flight from Tokyo, Japan on Sunday morning and arrive in Seattle, Washington the preceding Saturday night. And when your friends meet you at the airport and ask when you left Tokyo, you will have to say I left tomorrow. This is what our nation has done through the invention of the Wright Brothers, right on down to the present day. Yes, through our spaceships, we’ve literally carved highways through the stratosphere. Through our submarines, we’ve penetrated oceanic depths, all of this is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.
But what I want to say to you tonight, my friends, is that when we look to the other side, something basic is missing. We suffer from a kind of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to swim the seas like fish and to fly the air like birds. And yet, we have not learned the simple art of walking the earth as brothers and sisters. And this is the great dilemma facing America. And, you know, it comes to this point now, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.
Now, there are three things that we must deal with and we’re going to transform this neighborhood into a brotherhood. We’ve got to deal with the problem of racism. We’ve got to deal with the problem of economic injustice or poverty. And we’ve got to deal with the problem of war.
Let me start out talking about racism, and more and more, we’ve got to tell the truth to America about this problem. And the truth means saying to our nation that the roots of racism are very deep in America and they’re still here, and that racial injustice is still the Black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.
Now, admittedly, we’ve made some strides. We’ve made some progress. But this shouldn’t cause any of us to become apathetic or lax or complacent. No one denies that the plant of freedom has grown only a bud, and not yet a flower. The problems that we face are still very serious.
Now we hear a lot of talk these days about the so-called white backlash. I want to tell you what the white backlash… It’s merely a new name for an old phenomenon. It is a continued expression of the same vacillation, the same ambivalence that’s characterized white society from the very founding of this nation.
On the Statue of Liberty we read that America is the mother of exiles, but it doesn’t take us long to realize that America has been the mother of its white exiles from Europe. She has not evinced the same maternal care and concern for her Black exiles who were brought to this country in chains from Africa. And it is no wonder that our slave foreparents could think about it and they could start singing in a beautiful soul song and a beautiful sorrow song, “sometimes, I feel like a motherless child.”
It was this sense of estrangement and rejection that called our forebears to use such a metaphor. You see, what has happened is that our [recording skips] made a constantly made a positive step forward on civil rights, but it has usually, simultaneously made a step backwards. There has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the question of genuine equality for the Black man.
In 1863, the Negro was freed from the physical bondage of slavery through The Emancipation Proclamation. But he wasn’t given any land to make that freedom meaningful. You know, it was something like having a man unjustly imprisoned for 30 or 40 years and suddenly you discover that’s he’s innocent! That he’s been unjustly jailed for 30 or 40 years, then you simply go up to the man and tell him, now, you’re free. But you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to buy any clothes to put on his back. You don’t give him any money to get on his feet so that he can rise up once more as a man. But this is what happens to the Black man in America, and we must remember this: that at the very same time America refused to give the Black man anything, they said you’re free. He was left penniless, illiterate, standing out in a situation, not knowing what to do or where to go and we must not forget that at the same time the Negro was being treated like this, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest. It said that our country was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor, and it refused to undergird its Black peasants who were brought in chains from Africa with an economic floor. And so emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains from heaven. It was freedom without a roof over their heads. Freedom without bread to eat. Freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time, and it is a miracle that the Negro has survived!
But the white backlash didn’t stop there. In 1875, the nation passed the civil rights bill and refused to enforce it. In 1964, The nation passed an even weaker civil rights bill, and even to this day has failed to enforce it in all of its dimensions. In 1954 the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the public schools, and today less than 10% of the Negro students of the South are attending integrated schools, which means we have made 1% progress a year, and it if continues at this rate, it will take another 94 years to integrate the schools.
Suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing and at the same time, or in the same breath, they contend that they are not racist. All of this tells us, my friends, that the white backlash is nothing new. The fact is that America has been backlashing on the question of genuine equality for the Black man for more than 300 years. And this is something that we must realize and that we must see. And this is why I say to you that our job is still difficult. We still need your voices. We still need your support. And that any way to solve this problem without pressure, there isn’t any way to solve the problem of racial injustice without persistent non-violent pressure. There have been those who felt it could be done another way. There is a great man in our history and I did not come to you to criticize him tonight, because I think he was a sincere man. His name was Booker T. Washington. Mr. Washington believed that the problem could be solved through pressure-less persuasion. He sincerely felt that. He felt that if you didn’t push things too fast, that if you didn’t bother the white South, if you didn’t try to make the white man do something that he didn’t want to do at that particular time, he would ultimately come around. Mr. Washington sincerely felt this but he misread history. He did follow that approach. He started saying everything that the white people wanted to hear. He was honored for it. He was called a responsible leader. I’m always a little worried when i’m referred to as a responsible leader because so often, when some people call you responsible leader, they’re really telling you that you are a leader who will not tell the truth on behalf of your people. So often they mean that you are a leader more concerned about your budget than you are concerned about the freedom of your people. So often they really mean that you are a leader willing to say to the white power structure what they want to hear rather than what they ought to hear. Booker T. Washington went on with the notion of pressure-less persuasion and the reactionary forces of the white South used that only to plunge deeper into the oppression of the Negro. He told us to let our buckets down where were and the problem was that there wasn’t much water in the well.
And somewhere we must come to see that we must rise up and stand on our own two feet and say to our white brothers that we are determined to be men. This is what the movement is saying. We’re somebody. We are determined to gain our freedom and we are going to start with ourselves by freeing our own psyche, our own souls! This is where we’ve got to start first! For you see in the final analysis, if we’re going to be truly free, nobody else can do that for us. No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation can do that for us. No Johnsonian civil rights bill. If we’re going to be truly free, we must reach down into the inner depths of our being and sign with the pen and ink of assertive manhood our own emancipation proclamation, and we must come to say “yes, I’m Black. I’m Black but beautiful. I’m somebody. I have a rich and noble heritage, however exploited and painful it has been, and I’ve made a contribution to this issue.”