As I am wont to do, for this anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I want to recommend another less well-known, but important, speech, the 1966 Ware Lecture: Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution. Delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida, May 18, 1966.
Here’s just an excerpt:
One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.
And there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our world today. We see it in other nations in the demise of colonialism. We see it in our own nation, in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination, and as we notice this struggle we are aware of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our midst.
Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity, and so all over the world we see something of freedom explosion, and this reveals to us that we are in the midst of revolutionary times. An older order is passing away and a new order is coming into being.
The great question is, what do we do when we find ourselves in such a period?…
First, we are challenged to instill within the people of our congregations a world perspective. The world in which we live is geographically one…
Secondly, it is necessary for the church to reaffirm over and over again the essential immorality of racial segregation. Any church which affirms the morality of segregation is sleeping through the revolution…
The next thing that the church must do to remain awake through this revolution is to move out into the arena of social action. It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination.
It is necessary to get rid of one or two myths if we’re really going to engage in this kind of action program. One is the notion that legislation is not effective in bringing about the changes that we need in human relations. This argument says that you’ve got to change the heart in order to solve the problem; that you can’t change the heart through legislation. They would say you’ve got to do that through religion and education. Well, there’s some truth in this.
Before we can solve these problems men and women must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable. I would be the first to say this. If we are to have a truly integrated society, white persons and Negro persons and members of all groups must live together, not merely because the law says it but because it’s natural and because it’s right. But that does not make legislation less important. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration but you can legislate desegregation.
I’ll also point you to Martin Luther King Jr.: Remembering a Committed Life by Gary May, “who wrote the book, Bending toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. May appeared on Moyers & Company [in July 2013] to discuss his book and the agonizing but ultimately victorious struggle to pass the 1965 voting rights legislation — which he described to Bill as ‘a perfect example of the value of collective change to bring about progress in this country, people getting together and being committed and willing to risk their very lives to bring something when the country desperately needs it.'” Note, of course, how the Supreme Court has chipped away at voting rights legislation in recent years, which, I imagine, would have made Dr. King very sad and/or very angry.