Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
February 6, 1968, Washington, D.C.
And we can look all around and see how we find ourselves with mixed up priorities. President Johnson raised a question when he was giving his State of the Union Address. He talked about the 70 million televisions in our country. He talked about the beautiful highways and all of the beautiful new cars, about 8 million a year, that’s flowing down these highways. He talked about our material abundance and then he said something that needs an answer. He went on to say, and yet there is so much restlessness in the land, he said there is so much questioning. And I would like to say there is restlessness in the land because the land doesn’t seem to have a sense of purpose, a proper sense of policy and a proper sense of priorities. This is the basis of the restlessness. [Applause]
And the words of Jesus are still applicable. What does it profit a generation, what does it profit a nation to own the whole world of means televisions, electric lights and automobiles and lose in the end the soul. The words of Jesus are still true in another sense. Man can not live by the bread of colored televisions alone but by every word, the word of justice, the word of love, the word of truth, every word that procedeth out of the mouth of God. And the problem is that all too many people in power are trying to get America to live on the wrong thing. And this is why we are moving in the wrong direction. This war is playing havoc with our domestic destinies for all of these reasons. We are fighting two wars today. One is the unjust war in Vietnam but the fact is we aren’t winning that war there because it is clearly an unwinnable war. [Applause]
And certainly we aren’t winning the other war that we are supposed to be in, namely the war against poverty. And we aren’t winning that war because of the attempt to win an unjust war 8,000 miles away from home and because there are all too many people who are not willing to grapple with the problems of the poor. There are some wars in which I feel that people ought to be conscientious objectors and if I had to make the decision I would be a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. But there are other wars in which we can not be conscientious objectors and all too many people are trying to be conscientious objectors in the war against poverty. Everybody ought to be involved in that. [Applause]
I said some time ago, the press jumped on me about it, and I want to say it today one more time. [Applause] And I’m very sad to say it. We live in a nation that is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. [Applause] And any nation that spends almost $80 billion of its annual budget for defense channeled through the Pentagon and hands out a pittance here and there for social uplift is moving towards its own spiritual doom. And I say it over and over again that something must be changed. We’ve played havoc with the destiny of the world and we’ve brought the whole world closer to a nuclear confrontation. Somewhere we must make it clear that we are concerned about the survival of the world in a day when Sputniks and Explorers and Geminis are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere. No nation can ultimately win a war. It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence. And the alternative to disarmament…. [Applause]
The alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation and our earthly habitat will be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not envision. We’ve got to see that, and work diligently and passionately for peace. And you know in the freedom movement we have a song that we sing based on the Negro spiritual, and I hope we will continue to sing that song and sing it in the peace movement. Somehow we’ve got to say ‘I ain’t going to let nobody turn me around.’ [Applause]
And yes we aren’t going to let anything, or anybody turn us around in this just cause and in this struggle for peace. We aren’t going to let indictments turn us around, we aren’t going to let this attempt to crush dissent turn us around, we aren’t going to let the attempt of those who are saying or trying to identify dissent with disloyalty. We aren’t going to allow that turn us around. And I have come to the point….[Applause] And I have come to the point of saying that we aren’t going to let jail houses turn us around if its necessary. [Applause]
If this war in Vietnam isn’t ended we are going to be in the position of a nation of having some of the finest young men and adults in this nation in jail. A poll was taken just a few weeks ago at Harvard University, one of the great universities of the world, 24% of the students polled said that they would go to jail or leave the country and go to Canada somewhere before they would serve in the war in Vietnam. Then 96% of those polled said they opposed the Administration’s policy in Vietnam. This is happening all over, young men finding this war objectionable and abominable are rising up, saying, ‘We can not in all good conscience serve in it.’ And we as clergymen, we as ministers, and rabbis, and priests must forever stand with young men in their moments of conscience. We were ordained to do that. [Applause]
Now I’m about through. I told Ralph Abernathy that I was going to talk about five minutes. And I said, “But Ralph, the temptation is, when you get before a big audience like that and you get before preachers you end up preaching a little bit.” [Laughter] But in all seriousness I’ve got to get out to attend the board meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which begins at 2:00 here in Washington. And I want to say one other thing before I go. I’m still convinced that the struggle for peace and the struggle for justice or the struggle for civil rights, we call it in America, can be tied together. These two issues….[Applause] They are tied together in many many ways. And I feel the people who are working for civil rights should be working for peace and I feel that those who are working for peace should be working for civil rights and justice. Now we have a grave problem in our country. There is an economic depression alive right now. It happens to be poor people involved and therefore it is not called a depression. When poor people and Negroes are way down in a depression situation economically, we call it a social ill, but when white people get massively unemployed we call it a depression. [Laughter – Applause]
And the Negro is facing a depression. Statistics would reveal that the unemployment rate in the Negro community is about 8.4%. What they don’t reveal is the fact is that their statistics are compiled on the basis of people who go to an employment office to find a job or who formerly were in the labor market. They don’t deal with what we call the discouraged. People who’ve given up, people who’ve had so many doors closed in their faces that they feel defeated, they’ve lost motivation, they’ve come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, and so they don’t go out to look for a job. Now if you add these people the unemployment rate in the adult black community is probably 16% or 17%. And when you get to the Negro youth, the unemployment is probably, in some cities at least it’s between 30% and sometimes it goes up as high as 40%. Now this is a depression. More staggering than the depression of the 30’s.
Not only is the problem unemployment, there is another problem that is even greater and that is underemployment. Most of the people who are poor in our country are working everyday and that’s not said enough. They work in our hotels, they clean up our rooms when we go to our hotels across the country for our meetings. They work in our hospitals, they work in our homes, most of them are domestic workers working everyday working sometimes 60 hours a week. They’re working full time jobs getting part time income. These are problems that are very real. It’s developed an underclass in our nation and unless that underclass is made a working class we’re going to continue to have problems. Now the bitterness is very deep as a result of these problems, it’s broad, it’s extensive. And we in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference feel that we can’t stand idly by while these problems continue to grow and not take a stand against them. We feel that it is time now to bring a Selma-type or Birmingham-type movement to bear on the economic problems confronting the poor people of our nation. And when I say poor people I’m not only talking about black people, I’m aware of the fact that there are a poor people on a large scale in the Puerto Rican community, I’m talking about the Mexican-American community, I’m talking about the Indian community, I’m talking about the Appalachian white community, I’m talking about poor people’s power. That is what is needed. [Applause]
Now time will not permit me to go into any details on this. And I am only saying it, I’m only mentioning this to say that we need your support. Now we, as we seek, to bring to bear the power of non-violent direct action on the nation. The fact is that the people of the nation want to do the very things that we are going to be demanding when we come to Washington. A Harris poll reveals, two months ago that 68% of American people feel that there should be in existence now a program that would make it possible for everybody who wants to work to have a job. Whether it’s a WPA type program or of a kind. It went on to reveal that 64% of the American people feel that the slums should be eradicated. And these communities rebuilt by the people who live in them and that would provide a kind of mass employment. And not only do we see it in the general population, there’s the group call Urban Coalition, made up of most of the mayors of our country. Mayors of the big cities and some of the outstanding businessmen, they have asked for these very same things. The periodical, Newsweek magazine, devoted a whole edition the other day calling for these same things. And I could go right down the line. Three Presidential Commissions have called for. The Mission on Technology Automation and Economic Progress, The White House Conference on Civil Rights, and yet nothing has happened. And I’ve just come to a conclusion, that our country really doesn’t move on these issues. Until a movement is mobilized to so dramatize and call attention to it that the Congress can not elude the demands. Now we see the riots developing in the country. And I want to say today, and it’s easy to point out and say this person started a riot or this person created the atmosphere for riots. I figured it’s time to say now that it is the Congress of the United States of America that’s causing riots in our country. [Applause]
And so I say we need your support and we expect it as we move on into this area and I want to thank you for the support that so many of you have continually given. As we were marching today, some 5,000 strong, I thought about Selma because I could look around and see so many who have marched with us in Selma, and from Selma to Montgomery. And we are still marching and we are still moving. And I give you my commitment today that I plan to continue. Someone said to me not long ago, it was a member of the press, ‘Dr. King, since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy. Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement and people who once respected you may lose respect for you because you’re involved in this controversial issue in taking the stand against the war.’ And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart and say to that man, “I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. [Laughter – Applause] I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or by taking….[Applause] Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” [Applause] Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus. [Applause] On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.