How do some speakers seem to craft such eloquent oral poetry, capturing the ethos of a moment, that so powerfully resonates in the hearts of all who read it decades later? Men and women whom have their words carved in stone, surrounded by flowing water, and flanked by pillars of marble? Are such moving speakers artists? Psychologists? Prophets?
Consider the following:
So I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?"
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."
How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long? Not long: Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
-- From Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March - March 25, 1965
This year, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, we know better than ever that words have power. Words can build incredible countries and systems of government, or destroy lives and lead to war.
Words can so divide a people that facts become alternative, the poor become rich, neighbors become a seething horde, and friends become enemies.
Today, so many of the words we hear from our living leaders leave us uninspired and wanting, consisting only of standard recycled trope and campaign blathering, or deeply entrenched cultural warfare that is unending in scope and limitless in futility. It seems that speakers and writers the level of King come once in a generation, once in a century.
As a people, we long for vision - to have our way of life validated through the realization of a common goal, to gain reassurance that our lip service against extremism and autocracy isn't. To see not only adherence to the 250-year old lofty ideals of our founders (that they themselves never realized), but a continued enlightenment brought about by this crazy trip we're all on as passengers of the Great Melting Pot.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of light and hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as the joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chain of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corner of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
It would be fatal for the Nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning.
Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will be content will have a rude awakening if the Nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our Nation until the bright day of Justice emerges.
-- From "I Have a Dream" Speech, Washington DC, August 28, 1963
Some say King's message was amplified by his murder. Reading these words now, they stand on their own, not wistul because of his martyrdom, but because his foresight into what would become modern thinking tugs at our hearts and makes us dream of how far we have to go.
As he said, 1963 was a beginning. It is up to us to decide what the end looks like.
Another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence! That is where we are today.
-- From King's Last Speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop", April 3rd, 1968.
King was assassinated the next day.