Martin Luther King, Jr. being Interviewed, with Coretta Scott King next to him, October 20, 1965 (Wikimedia Commons)
Throughout his career, Martin Luther King, Jr. utilized African American history in his speeches. His use of this history was part of a longer tradition of a “usable past” found among many American speakers, who tried to use the American past to elucidate the problems of the present. One of the key themes found in Martin Luther King Jr.’s public speeches and writings after he became a well-known figure was the use of 1619 as a marker for the beginning of Black history in America. On several occasions at the beginning of his career, King used 1619 as a way to speak to audiences about the long reach of the Black Freedom Movement—and, at the same time, reminded Black audiences that their presence in America stretched far beyond what mainstream (i.e. white) audiences assumed to be the case.
An early example of this was at a speech King gave in Buffalo, New York in 1956. King began his journey through American history in this speech in the year 1619, with the arrival of the first Africans in British North America at Jamestown, Virginia. He marked a noticeable difference between the circumstances of their arrival with that of a more famous group that disembarked on North America’s shore the following year. “They were brought here from the soils of Africa,” King said, “and unlike the Pilgrim fathers who landed here at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their will.” However, even here King made it clear just how much the fate of Black Americans was tied to their brothers and sisters across the Atlantic Ocean. “For more than 200 years Africa was raped and plundered, a native kingdom disorganized, the people and their rulers demoralized and throughout slavery the Negro slaves were treated in a very (in?) human form.” The fates of Black people everywhere are intertwined, King argued. History proved this. In a way, this allowed him the chance to also link the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. to the decolonization movements in Africa and Asia.
“The Birth of a New Age” sets a tone for many of King’s future public speeches. He often invoked the international situation, to remind his listeners of the anti-colonial struggles going on in Asia and, especially, Africa. Second, King adopted a long view of Black American history, linking the troubles of his present to the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Invoking 1619 placed King in a longer tradition of Black American intellectuals, historians, and activists pointing to that moment as the “birth” of Black America.
King often looked back to 1619 to give himself, and his audiences, the passion needed to continue the fight for freedom in the 1950s and 1960s. In another speech given shortly before his address to Alpha Phi Alpha, King also mentioned 1619 and the destruction slavery wrought on Black people in America and Africa. King also continued to mention another key moment in Black American history: the Dred Scott decision of 1857. In both speeches, King pointed to the Dred Scott decision that showcased the inhumane way Black Americans had been treated within the United States for so long. His chief lesson was a broader, and perhaps more metaphysical, one than the case itself. It was, for King, a reminder “that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization and to cover up an obvious wrong with the beautiful garments of righteousness.”
He wanted his audience, a group of missionaries and other Christians in Green Lake, Wisconsin, to understand what kind of political and spiritual battle he and others in the Civil Rights Movement were undertaking. The beginning of 1956 saw the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had last almost a full year and tested the limits of King’s civil disobedience and nonviolence doctrine. But King knew, and acknowledged here, what the opponents of desegregation would use to their advantage: the politics and law of their day. Like in the antebellum era, defenders of the status quo would have no qualms about twisting ideas of morality to suit their own cause. “And so man,” argued King, “has the unique and tragic power of justifying the rightness of the wrong.”
Another unique aspect of how King used history in his speeches was his ability to tie together this long string of oppression throughout American history—and to explain how Black Americans were finding new ways to push back against it. “The great tragedy of physical slavery,” King lamented, “was that it led to the paralysis of mental slavery.” It led to “a sort of racial peace” that was, in King’s estimation, “an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced patiently to accept injustice and oppression and exploitation.” However, for King the then-recent history of World War II, and Black participation in it, had dramatically changed what Black Americans expected from their government. He called it a “new self-respect” for Black Americans.
Part of the importance of King’s speeches and how they utilized history is how they attempted to shape Black American history. King wanted his audience to understand why it was, in the mid-1950s, that Black Americans were fighting tenaciously for equal rights. He wanted people to understand the new attitude in the air among Black Americans. This was not King erasing the movements and battles between the Civil War and the modern Civil Rights era—but it did give him an opportunity to help mold how most Americans, then and today, understand the origins of the “modern civil rights movement.”
Certainly, a pattern emerges in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches in the late 1950s. He constantly mentions 1619 and ties together the plight of Black Americans to Black Africans in his public remarks. However, over time King also began to mention other critical moments in Black American history—to further understate how much progress had been made since emancipation at the end of the American Civil War. Above all, the methods by which racial oppression evolved in American society are underscored by King’s address in St. Louis, Missouri titled “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” given on April 10, 1957.
King made plain the crisis that plagued the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. Progress had certainly been made in the realm of civil rights and opportunities for Black Americans. In this, King used changes in the recent history of the South to point the new pitfalls that could potentially derail the movement. “It’s quite true lynchings have about ceased in the South,” King stated, “but other things are happening that are quite tragic.” He pointed to the massive resistance of Southern states to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that was making implementation of that decision nearly impossible throughout the former Confederacy. Further, the kind of resistance the movement faced was changing form. What he called “a modern version of the Ku Klux Klan” was influencing Southern cities and towns: “the so-called ‘respectable’ White Citizens’ Councils.” King also briefly made mention of Emmett Till—“the voice of a little boy, fourteen years old, is crying out from the waters of Mississippi”—reminding his audience, and future readers of this speech, the galvanizing role Till’s death played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
As King rose in stature in the late 1950s, his speeches carried several common themes. First, King often mentioned 1619 as the beginnings of this struggle in North America, tying the appearance of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia to the continuing problems of racism in 1950s America. Second, King used that history to link the struggles of Black Americans in America to their brothers and sisters in the Black Diaspora in Africa. Finally, King used history to place in historical context what the Civil Rights Movement was achieving in the 1950s—and to remind his audiences of how difficult the journey ahead would be.