When Dr. King Talks to Me, This is What He Says

Reflections on the words you know and the ones you don't.

January 12, 2023

I grew up in New Hampshire, which was the last state in the country to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday (kicking and screaming, at that; they held out until literally the year 2000, almost two decades after federal legislation making it a national holiday was passed).

Dr Martin Luther King Jr waves to participants in the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington. (Image via Getty Images)

At home, though, my white adoptive parents told me the words and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. made them feel encouraged about adopting and raising a Black child. “We believed in his message about people of all races coming together,” my mom liked to say.

To which I responded, on more occasions than I’d like to recount, that first of all, it was a dream. People of all races weren’t exactly unified when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963—the year Medgar Evers was murdered, the KKK killed four little Black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and tens of thousands of folks marched on Washington for their basic civil rights. 

And second of all: He was killed because of that dream.

My parents’ interpretation of King’s message felt willfully naive to me. But it is not uncommon for white liberals then or now to pride themselves on just knowing who he is while conveniently forgetting how radical his message was at the time of his assassination—particularly following his public denouncement of the Vietnam War in a speech given at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. Up to that point in 1967, most Northern liberals felt pretty OK about supporting King’s fight for civil rights on American soil. But when it came to people of all races in other parts of the world? Not so much. (King also committed the cardinal sin of pushing back against American military power, considered unpatriotic then and now.) The media went nuts. In a piece called “Dr. King’s Error,” The New York Times, a notable ally of King’s, called his speech “both wasteful and self-defeating.”  

But his words, the famous and less-famous ones, continue to exist and reverberate in the world. It’s odd to miss people you’ve never met (much less public figures or historical icons) but when I reread some of King’s words, I miss him. I miss the extraordinary power and passion of his focus and his love for us in real time. I often wonder if he could have imagined how the things he said amid great struggle and duress would decades later be cut, spliced, removed from their context, and posted on  Instagram. I wonder if he could guess that there would be a generation that knows him better for his quotes than for the fact that he helped get a law passed authorizing the federal government to treat me—and people of all races—equally. 

If we are going to keep lionizing his quotes, though, then MLK Day (now recognized nationally) is a good time to look at a few of them more closely and reconsider the ways they still hold meaning. Here are a few that resonate with me: 

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

The strident clamor of the bad people still be stridently clamoring. (Two words for you: January 6th.) And as we face some of the most vicious attacks on our rights, the “appalling silence of the good people” continues to damage and divide us as a nation. The U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right  to abortion. There were over 600 mass shootings documented in 2022. Voter suppression is still rampant. And while I am heartened by those who do speak out and protest, most people, even those who consider themselves fair-minded, choose to remain silent. That astonishes me.

“Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”

Still holds. I don’t think even the most well-intentioned white people understand that America’s default settings—the standards of all that we know and have codified into the canons of literature, beauty, education, moral codes, and societal behavior—is a made-up truth devised to make non-white people, specifically Black people, feel less than across the board. 

“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

In other words, your acts of oppression are oppressing us both.

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

Will it, though? I wrestle with this line of Dr. King’s. I have committed myself to the struggle throughout my entire life and career—and it doesn’t always feel noble. A lot of times, it just feels exhausting. King was not wrong about the struggle making you a better person, but being a better person doesn’t automatically mean the world changes. That’s the throughline—for all of King’s grace, fortitude, and elegant militance, he placed his faith in a universal humanity that did not exist then and does not exist now. 

But I suspect King knew that as well. If America could have its own version of humanity, then why couldn’t he have one, too? One that doesn’t demolish the other version, but rather helps to rehabilitate it? As his daughter Bernice King has reminded us in her own tireless efforts at carrying on King’s legacy: “My father literally fought his entire life to ensure the inclusion of all people because he understood that we were intertwined and connected together in humanity.” 

I guess that’s ultimately what keeps me in the struggle: a version of humanity that is fueled by compassion and sustained by the truth of our existence. And I will chase down that version until it no longer needs to be imagined. As King himself said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”    

Rainesford Stauffer

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and podcast creator/host. Her writing has been published widely, and she is the author of several books, including her recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. Rebecca is Editor at Large for The Meteor.