Over the last number of years I have made it a habit to read an address of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day I get off of work to commemorate his life. This morning I read his address of 14 November 1956. The address is to the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the car pooling that allowed people of color to get around while boycotting the segregated buses. On 13 November the Supreme Court in Browder v Gayle affirmed desegregation of transportation. King’s address the next night was an admonition to remain nonviolent and dignified when eventually blacks would return to the buses. In his speech he addressed the meaning of freedom, which is the part of his talk that I am quoting at length here.
Then I want to stress to you the meaning of freedom, for as we struggle for freedom in America there is a danger that we will misinterpret freedom. We usually think of freedom from something, but freedom is also to soemthing. It is not only breaking aloose from some evil force, but it is reaching up for a nigher force. Freedom from evil is slavery to goodness. And we must discover that freedom is more than a negative something. It is more than getting aloose from a negative, but it is becoming attached to a positive. I hope you will realize that. You know we talk a lot about our rights. That’s the glory of our Constitution: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But not only must we become bogged down in rights, because if we stop there we might misuse our rights. We might use our rights to trample over other people’s rights. It’s not only rights that we are seeking. We not only have the right to be free, we have a duty to be free. And when you see freedom in sense of duty, it becomes greater than seeing it in terms of right, your right to be free. You have a duty to be free. And when you see that you have a duty to be free, you discover that you have a duty to respect those who don’t even want you to have freedom. That’s the sense of duty. You come to see you must respect even that man who doesn’t want you to sit next to him on the bus. Somehow, freedom is this duty to respect all people, even though they don’t love you, they don’t respect you, but you respect them and you feel somehow that they can become better than they are. That’s the meaning of freedom. You have a duty to respect those––I don’t mean you have to respect their opinions, I don’t believe in respecting everybody’s opinion. I don’t respect anybody’s opinion who thinks that I’m supposed to be kicked around and segregated. I don’t respect their opinion. But I respect them as a personality, a sacred personality with the image of God within them. And although that image has been scarred, terribly scarred, although they, like the prodigal son have strayed away to some far country of sin and evil, I must still believe that there is something within them that can cause them one day to come to themselves and rise up and walk back up the dusty road to the father’s house. And we stand there with outstretched arms. That’s the meaning of Christian faith. That’s the meaning of this thing. Our Christian religion says somehow that a prejudiced mind can be changed. And I’d close up my books and stop preaching if I didn’t believe that. I want to tell you this evening that I believe that Senator Engelhardt’s heart can be changed. I believe that Senator Eastland’s heart can be changed! I believe that the Ku Klux Klan can be transformed into a clan for God’s kingdom. I believe the White Citizens Council can be transformed into a Right Citizens Council! I believe that. That’s the essence of the Gospel.
From The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume III: Birth of A New Age December 1955–December 1956, Clayborne Carson, Senior Editor. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997) pp. 428-429.