The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left, and curator Marvin Sadik, director of the Bowdoin Art Museum, as King toured the exhibition “The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting” in May 1964. Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College Archives

In May 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned in a speech at Bowdoin College against waiting for the passage of time to solve racism, and he addressed the dangers of moderation. Both, he said, can be used to maintain the status quo.

His words still resonate nearly 57 years later, on the national holiday that bears his name. As King did, present-day activists in movements such as Black Lives Matter seek to awaken America from its complacency toward systemic racism. Their advocacy has spurred growth and change, but also a backlash that asks why those fighting for equality can’t accept more moderate – or incremental – results.

That’s a question King answered many times in his day.

“The only answer we can give to this myth is time is neutral – it can be used either constructively or destructively – and it could be the forces of ill will in our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will,” King said in 1964 at the college in Brunswick, his only speech in Maine. “Somewhere along the way, we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of dedicated individuals, who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is always necessary to help time and to realize the time is always right to do right.”

King addressed the same point in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from April 16, 1963. He wrote, “Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well-timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”

Only a few months later, on Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered his most famous speech, known as “I Have A Dream.” Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., King reached into America’s past to uncover the racial injustice at the heart of its foundation, and delivered a shining vision of a future “oasis of freedom and justice.”

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Toward the end of his life, King worked to expand the civil rights movement into a multiracial alliance encompassing what he called “The Other America”: the millions across the nation who fell on the wrong side of the United States’ growing economic inequality gap. In a speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, he called on poor white Americans to join a coalition seeking economic opportunity for everyone.

“If we are to go on in the days ahead and make true brotherhood a reality, it is necessary for us to realize more than ever before that the destinies of the Negro and the white man are tied together,” he said. “Now, there are still a lot of people who don’t realize this. The racists still don’t realize this. But it is a fact now that Negroes and whites are tied together, and we need each other. The Negro needs the white man to save him from his fear. The white man needs the Negro to save him from his guilt. We are tied together in so many ways, our language, our music, our cultural patterns, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white.”

In that speech and in his final years, King probed the mutually reinforcing links between Black oppression, widespread economic inequality and white backlash to racial justice movements. Now, activists such as the Rev. William Barber, a leader of the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign, hope to bring together minority Americans and poor and working-class whites, who, separated from racism, might find themselves to be natural allies.

“In a real sense, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King said in 1967, adding later: “And so we are all in the same situation: the salvation of the Negro will mean the salvation of the white man. And the destruction of life and of the ongoing progress of the Negro will be the destruction of the ongoing progress of the nation.”

King gave his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Speaking to a church filled with sanitation workers on strike over poor working conditions and inadequate pay, he again called for a grand alliance against racism and economic inequality. King told his audience they’d live to see that “promised land,” though, having already survived at least one attempt on his life, he knew he might not.

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