In King’s soaring oratory, the protesters’ understandings of freedom fused into a coherent whole. For the title of his first book, relating the boycott’s history, King chose the title Stride Toward Freedom. His most celebrated oration, the “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, began by invoking the unfulfilled promise of emancipation (“one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free”) and closed with a cry borrowed from a black spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

A master at appealing to the deep sense of injustice among blacks and to the conscience of white America, King presented the case for black rights in a vocabulary that merged the black experience with that of the nation. Having studied the writings on peaceful civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, as well as the nonviolent protests the Congress of Racial Equality had organized in the 1940s, King outlined a philosophy of struggle in which evil must be met with good, hate with Christian love, and violence with peaceful demands for change. “There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out to some distant road and lynched,” he declared in his speech at the launching of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Echoing Christian themes derived from his training in the black church, King’s speeches resonated deeply in both black communities and the broader culture. He repeatedly invoked the Bible to preach justice and forgiveness, even toward those “who desire to deprive you of freedom.” Like Frederick Douglass before him, King appealed to white America by stressing the protesters’ love of country and devotion to national values. The “daybreak of freedom,” King made clear, meant a new dawn for the whole of American society. And like W. E. B. Du Bois, he linked the American “color line” with the degradation of non-white peoples overseas. “The great struggle of the Twentieth Century,” he declared in a 1956 sermon, “has been between the exploited masses questing for freedom and the colonial powers seeking to maintain their domination.” If Africa was gaining its freedom, he asked, why must black America lag behind?

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!