Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.
Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.
True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.
But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.
The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.
Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?
Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.
It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.
Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:
Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”
Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.
This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:
One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.
Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?
I could sign on to that worldview.
The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.