I recently enjoyed watching the 2013 US film ‘the Butler’, based on the true story of Eugene Allen’s 34-year career as a butler in the White House. Aside from being an interesting biography, the film was a great recap of the history of the civil rights movement – the inspirational campaign against racial segregation in the US.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, black people were barred from eating in certain restaurants and public spaces in the American South, and that even more shockingly, the state would essentially stand by as people were tormented and physically abused.
How do you respond to that sort of treatment, while keeping the moral high ground and winning the argument? The appropriate response to such discrimination is one of the major themes of the film, with Allen (portrayed by Forest Whitaker) favouring cautious adaptation to the status quo, and frequently clashing with his son Louis who experiments with more direct action (both violent and non-violent).
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, and is portrayed briefly in the film prior to his assassination in 1968. King’s non-violent model of protest ultimately proved highly effective in securing key pieces of legislatory change.
At the heart of his leadership was King’s ability to inspire and motivate. I remember studying the ‘I have a dream’ speech in school history lessons, and it really is a wonderful example of rhetorical technique. You can Google the speech or seek out excerpts of his rhetoric, but the problem with most internet quote lists is that very few of them are properly sourced, so you have no idea whether the person being quoted actually said what they said at all!
In King’s honour, below are ten of his best quotes – fully referenced with the original sources!
1. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Source: ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, 1963)
2. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (Source: ‘Loving Your Enemies’ sermon, 1957)
3. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” (Source: speech in St Louis, Missouri, 1964)
4. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” (Source: ‘Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam’ speech, 1967)
5. “Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.” (Source: ‘Where do we go from here?’ speech, 1967)
6. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.” (Source: ‘Where do we go from here?’ speech, 1967)
7. “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Source: sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 1965)
8. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Source: ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, 1963)
9. “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (Source: Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)
10. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” (Source: ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, 1963)