Editor’s note: The question Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posed decades ago still resonates in 2019. Here is an edited excerpt of the annual report he delivered at the 11th convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Aug. 16, 1967 in Atlanta.
In spite of a decade of significant progress, the Negro still lives in the basement of the Great Society.
He is still at the bottom, despite the few who have penetrated to slightly higher levels. Even where the door has been forced partially open, mobility for the Negro is still sharply restricted. There is often no bottom at which to start, and when there is there’s almost no room at the top. In consequence, Negroes are still impoverished aliens in an affluent society. They are too poor even to rise with
And the Negro did not do this himself; it was done to him. For more than half of his American history, he was enslaved. Yet, he built the spanning bridges and the grand mansions, the sturdy docks and stout factories of the South. His unpaid labor made cotton “King” and established America as a significant nation in international commerce. Even after his release from chattel slavery, the nation grew over him, submerging him. It became the richest, most powerful society in the history of man, but it left the Negro far behind.
And so we still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom. Yes, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt, and we have crossed a Red Sea that had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance, but before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice.
We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand. We need some North Star to guide us into a future shrouded with impenetrable uncertainties.
In order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” we must first honestly recognize where we are now.
Not a whole person
When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is fifty percent of a person.
Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of Whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of Whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of Whites.
When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of Whites
In other spheres, the figures are equally alarming. In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind Whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than the White schools. One-twentieth as many Negroes as Whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, seventy-five percent hold menial jobs.
What should we do?
First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must no longer be ashamed of being Black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.
In Roget’s Thesaurus, there are some 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, such words as
Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the White child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority.
Free your mind
As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom.
And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my
Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, “I’m Black but I’m Black and beautiful.” This self-affirmation is the Black man’s need, made compelling by the White man’s crimes against him.
Now another basic challenge is to discover how to organize our strength
The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. Now the problem of transforming the ghetto, therefore, is a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo.
Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Now what has happened is that we’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power, and White Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in Whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.
Employment or income Now we must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. We realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.
Our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.
Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.
Stay committed to nonviolence
We must reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence. One sees screaming youngsters and angry adults fighting hopelessly and aimlessly against impossible odds. And deep down within them, you perceive a desire for self-destruction, a kind of suicidal longing.
Occasionally, Negroes con tend that the 1965 Watts riot and the other riots in various cities represented effective civil rights action. At best, the riots have produced a little additional anti-poverty money allotted by frightened government officials and a few water sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations.
And when one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces.
Violent U.S. revolution impossible
Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard, and finally, the Army to call on, all of which are predominantly White.
Furthermore, few, if any, violent revolutions have been successful unless the violent minority had the sympathy and support of the non-resisting majority. It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American Blacks would find no sympathy and support from the White population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves.
Change the structure
We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. We must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” You are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You begin to ask the question(s), “Who owns the oil?” Who owns the iron ore? Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?”
When I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem(s) of racism, of economic exploitation, and of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
One night, (someone) came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying. You must not commit adultery. You must stop cheating if you are doing that.” Jesus realized something basic – that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” In other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.”
A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”
Let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds; until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice; until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home; until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education; until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however Black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin; until every state capitol will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.
Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream; until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid, and men will recognize that out of one blood, God made all men
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.
The road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs.
But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
This is our hope for the future, and with this