© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

MLK implores people to awaken from the dream

Ways To Subscribe
Robert Hodierne
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives

One day before his 19th jail sentence and six months before his horrifying assissination, Martin Luther King spoke at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where he delivered his prescient speech 'Remaining awake through a revolution.' King is well known as an unparalleled advocate for civil rights, but in the late 1960s he incorporates poverty, hunger, and war as part of his movement.

On the fourth episode of From the Archives, King implores individuals to awaken from the dream.

Christopher Tinson is a historian and associate professor of Africana studies and history and director of the African American studies program at Saint Louis University. He joined From the Archives to offer some context to King's remarks.

From the Archives was made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


The transcript was produced using AI transcription software and edited by an IPR producer, and it may contain errors. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here today. And to have the privilege of being on the campus of this very great and outstanding institution of learning. I have known of the rich and noble history of Grinnell College. And I have had great respect for this institution as a result of all that it has done for the cultural the academic and social life of our nation. And so it is a real honor and privilege to be with you today.

May I express in the very beginning my sincere apologies for being late today. I can assure you that this was something totally beyond my control. When Reverend Lee, my assistant, and I got on the charter plane that we had out of Chicago, the pilots assured us that the flight would be only one hour and a half. But as soon as we got in the air, we confronted a very strong headwind, very strong headwinds. And the flight ended up taking two hours and 20, 25 minutes, and this accounted for the fact that we ended up being late. I do want to express my apologies to all of you -- to the administration, to the President, to the chaplain, and to every one of you. And I do thank you for your great patience.

I have another apology also, and that is I must apologize for having to be here on a rather dash-in, dash-out basis. But I've got to get right out. Tomorrow morning, I will begin a jail sentence, I think this would be my 19th time in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, as a result of a movement that we had in that city in 1963, which brought into being the civil rights bill of 1964. So if I must serve some time as a result of what we did in 1963, for America, and for the south, then I don't mind the inconvenience and the agony of spending these five days in jail. But as a result of having to be in Birmingham and surrender for arrest tomorrow morning, I've got to be in Atlanta, to meet with the lawyers and my executive staff at eight o'clock tonight, which means I will have to be leaving earlier than I had originally planned to leave when I first accepted this invitation, I'm sure you will understand. And I know that this convocation experience has been a very rich and rewarding one for all of you. I'm deeply honored to be introduced once more by the man that I consider my spiritual father, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, one of the great men of our day and of age, I'm always happy to be in his presence. He is a dear friend of our whole family. And so I'm grateful to him for all of his very kind, and gracious words of introduction.

I want to use as a subject from which to preach this morning: Remaining awake through a revolution.

And for our biblical texts, I would like to quote two or three passages from the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation. You will remember that the writer of that book was in prison out on a lonely obscure island called Patmos when he wrote it. And in that chapter, he says, "I saw a new heaven and new earth. I saw the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God." Then he went on later in the chapter to say "former things are passed away. Behold, I make all things new."

I'm sure that most of you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled, Rip Van Winkle. The one thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked. It was a sign in the Inn in that little town on the Hudson in which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, it had a picture of George Washington, the first President of the United States. And when Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was amazed, he was completely lost. He knew not who he was.

Robert Hodierne
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives

This reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept 20 years but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain, a revolution was taking place which, to a great extent, would change the very course of history. And Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. One of the great liabilities of history is the fact that all too many people find themselves in a great period of social change. And yet they fail to develop the new attitudes and the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. All too many people end up sleeping through a revolution.

That can be no gainsaying of the fact that a revolution is taking place in the world today, the winds of change blowing, and old older is passing away. And the new order is coming into being.

And we notice something of a triple revolution. We notice on the one hand, the technological revolution with the impact of automation and cybernetics, we notice a revolution in weaponry with the emergence of nuclear weapons of warfare. And we notice the revolution in human rights with the freedom explosion that has taken place all over the world.

And the great question facing men and women in every setting, men and women all over this nation and all over the world is whether they will remain awake through this triple revolution. This morning, I would like to suggest some of the things that we are challenged to do in order to remain awake through this revolution.

First, we're challenged to develop and maintain a world perspective. Any individual who feels that he can live alone in the present world is sleeping through a revolution. Any nation that feels that it can stand alone or live alone in the world today is sleeping through a revolution. For the world in which we live is geographically one. And now more than ever before we are challenged to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has been brought into being to a large extent as a result of modern man's scientific ingenuity. Throughout scientific genius we've been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains and object planes have compressed into minutes distance is that once took days and even weeks. You know it is possible because of the time difference. To take a flight from Tokyo, Japan on Sunday morning and arrive in Seattle, Washington on 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 the kind of world in which we live. And so it reveals to us that our world is won geographically.

Now the problem is that although we have made of the world, our neighborhood through our scientific and technological genius, we have not yet developed the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. And yet something seems to say to us now that we must all learn to live together as brothers, we will all perish together, as fools. No individual can live alone. No nation can live alone, we are interdependent.

Some time ago, Mrs. King and I had the privilege of journeying to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India and to greet thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall let them. But I'd say to you this morning, my friends that there were those depressing moments. But how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes, evidence is of millions of people going to bed hungry at night?How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes thousands and thousands of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night, more than 600,000 sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no bed to sleep in and they have no houses to go in? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India's population of more than 400 million people, some 380 million make an annual income of less than $90 a year. And most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist. As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? And an answer came? Oh no. Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking about the fact as I stood that our nation spends millions of dollars every day to store surplus food. And I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge. In the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God's children in Asia and in Africa, and Latin America and even in our own nation who go to bed hungry at night. And it may well be that we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Derrick Te Paske
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives

All I'm saying is simply this that all life is interrelated. And all mankind is caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, we all tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms. No man is an island in time itself. Every man is a piece of the continent a part of the main and he goes on toward the end to say any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore send not to know tor whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. And this is what we must see in this day and age if we are to live creatively, former things are passed away. And that is a voice, crying through the vistas of time saying, behold, I make all things new.

Now, secondly, we are challenged to go all out to keep our moral progress abreast of our scientific and technological progress. It would be tragic for men and women to sleep at this point. For if we sleep at this point, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse and abuse of our own instruments and power.

Each of us lives in two realms, the within and the without. The within of our lives is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in our literature, morals, and religion. The without of our lives is that complex of devices, techniques, instrumentalities, and mechanisms by means of which we live. In other words, the without of life represents a house we live in, the automobile we drive, the economic security that we have, in other words, the material stuff that we must have to live.

Now the great danger always facing individuals and nations is that we will allow the within of life to become absolved by the without. And so often we end up cultivating the without, and allowing the within to lag behind. Sociologists would call this cultural lag. Theologians would call it moral and spiritual lag. Somehow we've got to deal with this kind of moral and spiritual lag if we are to live creatively in the modern world and remain awake through this revolution. We must never allow the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live, we must never allow our mentality to outrun our morality.

So much of our modern life can be summarized in that shrewd dictum of the poor Thoreau -- improved means to an unimproved end. And now we are challenged more than ever, ever before to remove that, and be sure that the means by which we live will never outdistance the ends for which we live. We must be sure now that we keep our moral progress abreast with our scientific and technological progress.

Third, if we are to remain awake through this revolution, we must struggle passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of every aspect of racial injustice. I need not remind you today that this is a problem all over our world. I need not remind you that this is a great problem facing our nation today. And this very problem can bring the curtain of doom down on American civilization. To be sure we made some strides in the struggle to make racial justice a reality and I would not want to overlook the progress that has been made. But it is necessary for all to see that the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower. We must realize that racism is still alive. All over our nation, north and south. But anybody who lives by the racist creed is sleeping through a revolution. For we must see racism for what it is -- it is the myth of the inferior race, it is the notion that one race is superior to another race. It is a creed based not on some empirical expression of judgment. But it is finally an ontological affirmation. It is not a creed based on the idea after studying through experimentation and as a result of experience that certain people are behind culturally because of environmental conditions. But it is the ontological expression which says that the very thing of a people is inferior. And the ultimate logic of racism is genocide. Hitler was a sick man, a mixed up man, one of the great evils of history, but he carried his racism to its logical conclusion. From the minute he concluded that the very being of the Jew was inferior, he ended up killing 6 million Jews. If at any point, someone says that somebody else is not fit to live next door to him, not fit to eat at the lunch counter, not fit to vote, not fit to have access to public accommodations or a decent job, then one is saying unconsciously or consciously at that moment that that person does not have the right to exist.

The final tragedy of racism is that it assumes that God made a creative error. And if we in this generation is to remain awake, through this revolution, we've got to get rid of every aspect of racism, and make it clear that we are through with racial injustice, now, henceforth, and forevermore.

Now, this problem will not work itself out. If we are to solve the problem of racial injustice, we must recognize that it will require hard work and deep commitment. Anyone who feels that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out, is sleeping through a revolution. So we've got to get rid of two myths that are constantly disseminated in our society, if we are to really get rid of racism, one is what I call the myth of time. This is the notion that only time can solve the problem. I've heard this over and over again, and I'm sure many of you have heard it. Now there are those who sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, you're pushing things too fast. Only time can solve the problem, just wait and be patient and continue to pray and then 100 to 200 years, the problem will work itself out because on the time it can solve it.

Well, there is an answer to that myth. And it is a time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I'm sad to say to you, my friends, that I'm absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation the extreme righteous of our nation, have often news time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and see wait on time. So somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rose in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts, and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. We must always help time.

And that is another myth. We hear it right now in the Congress of our nation because they are now talking about the civil rights bill. And this myth is the notion that legislation really can't do anything to solve the problem of racial injustice. And it grows out of the idea that you can't legislate morals, you've got to change the heart. Well certainly, I believe in changing the heart, I happen to be a Baptist preacher. And I'm in the heart changing business. I preach Sunday after Sunday about the need for the new birth and conversion and regeneration. And I believe in what some call\ sin, I believe in original sin. Men and women must be obedient to the unenforceable. But after saying this, it is necessary to point out the other side. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated. But behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can change the heart, but it can restrain the Heartless, it may be true that the law can make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that's pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when the habits change, pretty soon there will be aditudinal changes, and the heart may get changed in the process. And There is a need for civil rights legislation now to deal with the housing problem, to deal with maladministration of justice, and many other things. If this legislation is vigorously enforced, and that is need for a massive program.

Robert Hodierne
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives

That is another myth. And that is a myth of overstressing, the bootstrap philosophy. The negro is constantly told that he must lift himself by his own bootstraps. And over and over again over and over again, I get the question, why is it that negros so far behind? Other immigrant groups came to this nation much later, and they have problems. And yet they were able to overcome these things because they lifted themselves by their own bootstraps. And every time I hear that, I say to myself, it doesn't help the Negro for unfeeling insensitive persons, to say to him that other immigrant groups who came to this country 100, 150 years ago voluntarily have gotten ahead of the Negro who was brought to this country in chains some 348 or 9 years ago, those people never stopped to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soul. They don't stop to realize that the nation made the Negroes color a stigma. And they don't stop to realize that the Negro was granted emancipation from slavery in 1863, but he wasn't given any land to make that emancipation meaningful. It was something like keeping someone in prison for many years and suddenly discovering that the person is innocent of the crime for which they were convicted and going up to the person and saying, You are free. But not giving them any bus fare to get to town, not giving them any clothes or money to buy clothes to put on that back, some money to get on their feet again. Every system or code of jurisprudence would rise up against this. And yet this is exactly what happened to the Black man in America. After emancipation, he was left penniless, there he stood illiterate, penniless with no land to cultivate. But remember, at the same time, through an act of Congress, the nation was giving away millions of acres of land in the West, and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic flaw, while totally refusing to do anything to those persons that had been kept in slavery 244 years. But not only did the nation give the land, it built land grant colleges to teach these persons how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to give them greater expertise in farming, not only that, it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their phones. Not only that, at this time, and in this day, the federal government is providing many of these same persons with federal subsidies not to farm and in so many instances, these are the very persons who tell the Black man that he should lift himself by his own bootstraps. The fact is that nobody has lifted himself by his own bootstraps. We must do many things for ourselves. And it's a wonderful thing to say to a man lift yourself by your own bootstraps. But it's a cruel jest, to say to a bootless man, that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And unless there is a massive federal program involving billions of dollars to get rid of the blight of our cities, to get rid of unemployment, to get rid of poverty, then we are going to see darker nights of social disruption.

We've seen the riots in our cities. And I hope that everybody knows my views about non violence, I still believe that non violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro and his struggle for freedom and justice in America. And this is why I must constantly raise my voice against riots. I don't think riots represent the most practical of the most moral way to solve the problem. After condemning riots, it is necessary to condemn as vigorously the conditions which bring riots into being. A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America's fail to hear? It's failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. And it's failed to heal that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo, and about justice and humanity.

Victor Hugo said once where that is darkness, crimes will be committed. The guilty one is not merely he who commits the crime, but he who caused the darkness and there ss a lot of darkness around. The rioters did not cause that darkness. They didn't cause slavery, they did not cause unemployment. They did not cause slums they did not cause segregated schools. These things were caused and brought into existence, by the policy makers of our society. And so the job is before America to get rid of racial injustice. And anyone not working at it is sleeping through a revolution.

Finally, we must work diligently to find an alternative to war and destruction. John Fitzgerald Kennedy said once "mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." I'm more convinced about that now than ever before. We've got to find an alternative to war and to bloodshed. If we continue our tragic adventure in Vietnam, it can lead to a third world war. That is no doubt about that. The war hawks don't realize this. Those who are constantly crying, 'increase the bombings of Hanoi!' those who say in that secret chambers that we ought to invade North Vietnam, those who want to take on China, apparently aren't concerned about the survival of mankind.

Those who tell me I shouldn't speak out against war in general and the war in Vietnam, in particular failed to realize, that is one thing to work for integrated schools and integrated public accommodations. But it would be rather foolish to be concerned about an integrated school and not be concerned about the survival of a world in which to be integrated. And I'm concerned about the survival of the world. I love all mankind I love all of the children of the world and to bring another generation up under war and bloodshed will be tragic. An so I say if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, we can destroy ourselves first.

In a day when Sputnik and explorers and Geminis are dashing through outer space and guarded ballistic missiles or carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can really win a war, it may have a temporary victory here and there, but no nation can really win a war.

The choice is no longer between violence and non violence. It is either non violence or non existence and the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our Eartly habitat, will be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

So if we are to remain awake through a revolution, we must work hard to deal with these problems. And it really means two things. All that I've said really means, from here on in, our loyalties must be ecumenical, rather than sectional. And this calls for worldwide fellowship, beyond one's race, beyond one's tribe, beyond one's class, beyond one's nation even, is really a call for an unconditional love for all mankind. This often misunderstood and often misquoted concept is now an absolute necessity, for the survival of mankind. This concept that is so often dismissed by the niches of the world must become a reality. If our nation is to rise to its full maturity, and if the world is to rise to its full maturity, John is right and God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has discovered the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality. Love must have the final word, hate destroyes the hater, as well as the hated. I've seen hate. I've seen it on the faces of too many people. I've seen it in the lives of too many sherrifs and too many white citizens, counselors and too many Klansmen of the South. And every time I see it, I say to myself, I'm not going to do that. For hate, is too great a burden to bear. Love still stands as a supreme virtue.

The other thing is that we must have a kind of divine discontent. There are certain technical words in every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and cliches. modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word maladjusted. Certainly we all want to live the well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. And I say as I move to my conclusion and there are some things in our nation in our in our world, which I'm proud to be maladjusted, which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted, until the good society has realized I never intend to adjust to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism, and self defeating effects of physical violence.

Maybe our world is in dire need of a new organization. The International Association for the Advancement of creative maladjustment men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, crowd and words that echo across the centuries, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of his vacillations finally came to the conclusion that this nation could not survive half slave and half free, as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would etch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions. 'We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' As maladjusted as Jesus Christ, who could say he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the brightened glittering daybreak, a freedom and justice.

Like john old, I see a new heaven and new earth. I recognize that former things have passed away. And something is telling us that all things are being made new, and may we be participants, in that great struggle to make the world a better world. It won't always be an easy struggle, for if you work for peace and brotherhood, there will be times that you will be misunderstood and called bad names. There will be times when you'll little sons and your little daughters will say Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much? There will be times when you will be forced to stand amid the chilly winds of adversity, but go on with the faith. That unmerited suffering is redemptive.

And so this morning I can still sing we shall overcome. We Shall Overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We Shall Overcome because Carlisle is right. No lie can live forever. We Shall Overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right truth crusted earth will rise again. We Shall Overcome because James Russell Lowell is right truth forever on the scaffold wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways a future and behind the demon knowst standards God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mounting of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our cities into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. And we will be able to speed up the day when every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low and the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

John Pemble is a reporter for IPR
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Related Content