In MLK’s words: ‘Make American what it ought to be’

Published 10:16 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2018

From a column by James Hohmann about the speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave the night before his death:

“You may not be on strike, but either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” King said. “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. … He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.”

Only by sticking together in a determined way, King argued, could they “make America what it ought to be.” He urged the crowd not to buy Coca-Cola, Sealtest milk or Wonder Bread because those companies weren’t hiring African American employees. He also encouraged his audience to deposit their money in black-owned banks and to buy insurance from black-managed companies.

“We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” he said. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. …

“Bull Connor didn’t know history,” the reverend said, referring to the racist sheriff he stared down in Alabama. “And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”