Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered 50 years ago this Wednesday, is rightfully remembered as one of the most influential moments of oratory in the 20th century. With simple images of children playing together, allusions to shared Biblical references and American iconography, and a tremendously powerful repetitive cadence, the speech solidified King's role as the leader of the civil rights movement and marked a pivotal turning point in racism in America, however much still needs to change.
But of course, it was not King's only great speech--and perhaps not even his most courageous. As historian Peter Ling writes in a history of MLK's leadership style on BBC.com: "While it is customary to judge leaders by their successes, it may be argued that King showed his most heroic leadership after 1965, when he championed a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the tackling of poverty and deprivation in black ghettos, with little success." It took courage to fight segregation in the South, Ling writes, but "it took equal courage to challenge the President on foreign policy and to demand a massive redistribution of wealth and power to the underprivileged."
Of course, many people haven't heard King's other speeches, not only because of their more radical nature, but because King's speeches and papers are owned by his descendants and not all are readily available to be heard in their entirety. In them, however, he is just as much an inspiring leader, championing not only racial justice but an end to war and an end to poverty. He uses them to explain the larger context of how he sees these three issues as inextricably joined.
On this 50th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, King's most famous words are sure to be reread by many people. It's worth taking the time to read his less famous ones, too. Below, a sampling:
Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway. Delivered Dec. 10, 1964.
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. ... Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later, all the peoples of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood."
"I refuse to accept despair as a final response to the ambiguities of history. ... I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."
"Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break Silence," Riverside Church, New York. Delivered April 4, 1967.
"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
"Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?"
"Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.' "
"Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively -- that means all of us together -- collectively we are richer than all the nations of the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that?"
"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 don't mind."
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.