Dr. King’s words on conscience, action, and courage - true as ever

A Liberal Dose


­My Martin Luther King Day speech was canceled for snow, so - for Black History Month - I am presenting it here. I begin with a lengthy quote from a Dr. King speech in 1968:

“We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible. Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality …until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.

“Great documents are here to tell us something should be done... Nothing has been done. And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

“One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done…  I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget…. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—’No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—’Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today, ‘behind the dim unknown stands God, Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.’ “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope… we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”


My summary: We have to take action on what our conscience tells us is right. For 55 years, Americans have been asking themselves: what would I have done if I had been around during the civil rights movement? And answering themselves: I know I would have stood up for what’s right.

Would you? What are you doing today? Because the civil rights movement is not over. The civil rights movement is not then. IT IS NOW. We are living in a very inexpedient and impolitic time for speakers of truth about history. And for that matter, about the present. We live in a political climate where it has become dangerous to speak truth.

What are you going to do? Because dangerous as it might seem, no one is siccing attack dogs on you, or cracking your skull with nightsticks, or shooting you down in the street. So, what excuse do we have?

Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again. Are we going to hide in a bed of comfortable lies, or are we going to rise up with the truth? Are we going to stand, with a clean conscience, before “the God of history,” or are we going to kneel before a god of lies?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular… and that time is now.

We shall overcome.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party and the board of the Tennessee chapter of AIM (American Indian Movement)-Indian Territory. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.            


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