Martin Luther King Jr. would be 89 years old today if an assassin’s bullet had not felled him on April 4, 1968.
The radical revolutionary of the civil rights movement left behind volumes of letters, speeches, and notes that, when carefully combed through, reveal King’s politics and beliefs. Yes, there were writings on racism and civil rights, but King also covered wealth, war, and faith.
Though “I Have a Dream” remains his most well-known address, it was not necessarily his most explosive, nor his most revealing.
From Vietnam to income inequality, King’s nuanced speeches reverberated throughout the American political landscape, often garnering praise — though some also saw their share of criticisms.
Here are five MLK speeches that you might not know, but ultimately should.
Detroit Walk Toward Freedom — June 23, 1963
Given two months before his most famous speech, Detroit was a testing ground for King’s “I Have a Dream” address.
More than 100,000 people joined King in Detroit for what he called the “largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States,” according to a Boston Globe report at the time.
“Proud to be maladjusted” — Dec. 18, 1963
But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize.
I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination.
King famously proclaimed he was “proud to be maladjusted” during a speech at Western Michigan University that would eventually be “lost” for nearly 30 years.
In his speech, King proudly stated that he would never “adjust” to injustices that allow for racism and income inequality.
“The Quest for Peace and Justice” — Dec. 10, 1964
I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, King spoke of hope and faith in the movement he was leading. Speaking in Oslo, Norway, King espoused the ideals of nonviolence as “the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time.”
He ended the address by calling peace “more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”
Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break the Silence — April 4, 1967
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
King’s controversial Vietnam speech came before there was wide opposition to the war, making it one of King’s most radical speeches at the time.
Trusted advisors warned King not to give the speech, but the reverend was relentless and preached for peace. As a result of his forceful rejection of the war, Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House cut off ties with King and, according to NPR, 168 major newspapers denounced the civil rights leader the next day. A Boston Globe report from the next day said the speech was King’s “sharpest castigation of US policy.”
King would be assassinated exactly one year later.
“I’ve been to the Mountaintop” — April 3, 1968
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Delivered at the Masonic Temple in Tennessee the day before his assassination, King spoke in support of Memphis sanitation workers who were on strike, urging a boycott of companies like Wonderbread and Coke and supporting a march in solidarity with the workers.
The workers’ power, King said, laid in their wallets, and he encouraged them to turn to and support black businesses.
King closed out the speech with an anecdote about the time he was nearly killed during a stabbing at a book signing. Noting that a sneeze could have killed him, King expressed hopefulness: “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.”Aimee Ortiz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.