This speech is intended for use as a keynote speech for a Martin Luther King Day event. If you are a key note speaker for an MLK day event, you can modify this sample speech to meet your needs or audience or use as is. These prepared remarks could also be used for events about racial inequality, race relations, Black History Month, or other race and social justice focused speeches. This speech is the property of Canuwrite.com but may be used free of charge.
I’m so pleased to be here today. It’s a great honor to speak about the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. I’d like to begin with a quote from Dr King.
”Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
His message of nonviolence, peaceful protest and equality is as pertinent now as it was in his lifetime. Also pertinent is the truth and power behind that message, and the need we still have for it in our society.
As we commemorate this Martin Luther King day, we can look around at the news and at our communities and see that we still have a significant racial divide in our country. The marches, protests and even divisions among friends and families show that racism and discrimination did not end with the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, there is still much work to be done today.
Today, all across the country, we remember Dr. King. In parades and speeches and schools and churches, people honor his legacy. But it’s important to remember, he was not always so popular. He was not seen as a hero by many people during his life. Martin Luther King junior was an agitator. He was an activist. He made trouble. He did not accept the status quo. He stood up to authority and faced down firehoses and attack dogs and tear gas and police batons. In his lifetime, he was arrested 29 times according to the King Center in Atlanta. He worked with many other Civil Rights leaders of the time to lead marches and strikes. He and his followers blocked traffic, for instance during the 54 mile March from Selma to Montgomery. They participated in civil disobedience by peacefully protesting against unjust laws and practices. They disrupted public transportation and demonstrated outside of government offices, schools and commercial districts. Martin Luther King and many others like him fought segregation and discrimination when it was very unpopular and very, very dangerous to do so. He worked with religious leaders of many denominations. He worked with students, with workers, with people of color and with white people to try and force changes in a society that did not want changes. He and the other Civil Rights activists fought against inequality at the risk of their own safety. The fought to make sure that equal means equal, that justice means justice, and that every citizen is treated fairly.
We know that in the South there were laws enforcing segregation and discrimination. That legacy of racism was enshrined in law, plain to see. Yet the North wasn’t free of racism or discrimination either, even if it wasn’t blatantly backed up by laws. In the South laws enforced segregation. In the North, schools and neighborhoods were segregated not by law but by economics and social divisions. Riots, lynching, voter suppression, job discrimination – these happened in both North and South. While it was certainly more blatant in the South, racism is a problem that affected and affects us all still today. It did not end with the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. Racism is a problem that persists.
Today the idea of separate water fountains and waiting rooms seems preposterous. The idea that a person of color had to give up their bus seat for a white person seems crazy or that black people weren’t welcome to eat at any restaurant they wanted. It’s inconceivable that it was once illegal for black people and white people to get married. But the truth is, it’s simply not that long ago. Young people, ask your parents or your grandparents, your teachers or other adults about their memories of racial injustice in this country. They can tell you stories about things they’ve seen or things they remember happening in this country that would seem absolutely absurd today. Yet the fact is, it hasn’t been that long.
I’m reminded of a quote by the brilliant African American academic, author and Civil Rights leader W.E. B. DuBois. In 1903 he wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
So what is the color line, you might wonder? The color line is the division between people of color and white people. The Color Line was first mentioned by Civil Rights leader, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass who talked about the Color Line back in 1881. It has been discussed and debated by scholars, authors and activists since then.
It has been more than 100 years since DuBois identified it as the defining issue of the 20th century. It’s easy to look back to 1903, when there were still Civil War veterans and former slaves walking the streets of America, and see why DuBois would have called the Color Line the most important issue. Yet here we are today, and those generations have passed, but they’ve left their legacy with us and our society. When you look around and see the unrest, tension and protests in America, you can see that the Color Line persists. Sadly, it is still dividing us.
The problem of the color line stretches from our grandparents and great-grandparents through to us today. Will it continue from us to the generations that follow? To our children, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
For the younger people here, I want you to imagine your own children and grandchildren asking you about the history of racial oppression in this country. Think about what’s happening today: the racial strife, the marches, the protests and arguments. It has been only 50 years since the Civil Rights movement. The distance of time gives us perspective to look back on what happened then. Think of our modern days. How will the events of today look 50 years from now? In 50 years, will we still be fighting the same fights and having the same arguments about race? Instead, will we work to make progress and move forward to a place where the color line does not divide us for another 50 years?
Leaders like Martin Luther King fought to destroy the color line, and they paid for it with their lives. It’s a dehumanizing and tragic separation that hurts us all, and if we truly wish to honor the legacy of Dr. King, we must look to ourselves and our own communities and ask some hard questions. Where do I see racism in my daily life? Where do I see racism in my community? How is racism imbedded in American institutions and politics? Is it possible I only understand this topic from one perspective because of the color of my skin, or where I was raised? How can I learn more and seek to fight racism and inequality? How can I do my part?
Today, I want you to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, yes, but I want you to do more than that. I want you to question yourself and be honest about your answers. I want you to educate yourself about history. I want you to read books and essays from perspectives that are new or different to you. I want you to make an effort to cross the color line and talk with people from a different racial or ethnic background, a different religion or those from another country. Try and listen to their perspectives and experiences with an open heart and an open mind. Try to imagine how you’d feel in their situation.
Can we listen to each other’s experiences and try to bridge the gap that still separates people in our country? Can we embrace our fellow Americans and work to ensure we are not the divided states but rather the United States of America? Yes, I believe we can. It’s up to us.
Dr. King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement helped to bring about massive changes in America, but their work was not finished. Here we are years later and the color line still persists. As a country, as a people, we need to continue to work to ensure equality, opportunity and justice for all. This is our work, friends. The time is now, right now. We can’t shy away. We can’t depend on anyone else to do it. This is our mission and if we are brave and steadfast, we can all move forward together, as one people.
I’d like to close with another quote from Dr. King.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Remember this quote as you go forward. Remember to stand up against injustice and speak out for what is right. Remember to listen to the perspectives of people of other racial and ethnic groups and be open minded. Remember to keep learning and challenging yourself as you go. And remember to do your part to ensure that the color line ends here.
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