5 Things Martin Luther King Jr. Would Say in a Speech Today


Monday is the second inauguration of our first black president. It is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While the big speech on Monday is the president’s second inaugural address, I would like to take some time and consider a second speech, one that we won’t be hearing. I would like to take some time to consider what Martin Luther King Jr. might have chosen to say if he could give speak to a modern audience on the day of the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

After looking at some of King’s more well-known speeches, I have developed what I think to be a fair outline of what issues he would want to discuss and the positions he would take. While I don’t have the hubris to write a speech I would equate with King’s work, here are five short King-inspired sound bites to mark Obama's second inauguration.

*Please note: This piece isn’t reflective of my views or King’s views. Rather, it reflects my view of King’s views.

1. "The marching of time, of truth, and of men have brought us closer to a world that accepts all of God’s children, but we still have farther to go, we still are marching on."

As a nation, we have made a lot of progress on civil rights and racial equality. I think the first think King would do is acknowledge and congratulate this. He would likely mention that it has been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and how fitting it is that on such an anniversary we find ourselves at the second inauguration of our first African American President. I would expect him to also say something about how this doesn’t mean our work is done.

I think the emphasis on marching would work for King on a number of levels. It brings up the memory of the civil rights marches and also alludes to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a hymn that King once quoted during a speech.

2. "As a country we have learned that we are not defined by race, but we still must learn that race is defined by us."

As a prominent African American leader, King would have to discuss where he felt the country was in terms of race. Most signs indicate progress. We are clearly somewhere different than we were during King’s time, but where?

This is perhaps the hardest question to answer, but I think King would warn that we have tried to finish overcoming race by ignoring it, and I think he would offer a careful reminder that we can be deceived by this approach into thinking we’ve beaten racism when we have not.He would likely explain this idea a bit more before and after a line like this, but I think the word order reversal here makes the point quite elegantly.

3. "We have shed the shackles of slavery, broken the bonds of bigotry, and yet we are still imprisoned by poverty."

Discussing race in the 21st century, King would then be primed to discuss the discrepancies in poverty and imprisonment by race. I am certain King would discuss how minorities are still disproportionately impoverished and disproportionately incarcerated, and I'm certain that he would be outraged. King himself was jailed almost 30 times and viewed through the lens of his past I think he would find this injust discrimination. I think he would aim to tie this in with the issue of poverty and discuss how there are environments in this country that set up families to fail.

This line would be effective in framing the struggle against poverty as the next progression of the civil rights movement, and I think the metaphor effectively brings the issues of imprisonment and impoverishment together.

I suspect King would follow the discussion of poverty with the suggestion that we develop more effective social programs. It would work well right here as a standard problem/solution set up. Discussing social programs also brings up questions of how to pay for them, which the next sound bite would address.

4. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

King gave some fairly lengthy speeches about his opposition to the war in Vietnam. One of his objections was that the war was wasting money abroad that could have been better spent supporting those that were in need right here. While it is hard to say how King would feel about all the different military endeavors we have undertaken today, it seems likely that he would be for cutting military investments overall.

Rather than writing my own sound bite of what King might say about social programs and military spending, I have picked something he said that I think he would simply repeat now.

5. "The struggle to understand is unceasing. Hatred, like hell, Is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. Today is one such glorious triumph…”

Finally, I think the speech would end with a broader theme. I imagine King saying that we have many difficulties, but that there is a strong precedent for victory over hatred. Whether there is animosity between races, political parties, or any people, we must work to overcome it. A dream for a new generation, if you will. Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis might be a bit of an unusual reference for King, but I think it works pretty well here, and manages a solid transition back to the inauguration.

So what do you think? Did I miss anything important? Did I get anything wrong? Any suggestions for improved or additional sound bites? Let me know in the comments.