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After MLK Day

After the ceremony, after the memory, after all the oratory on Dr. King's birthday, what comes next?

After MLK Day

Coretta Scott King at Harvard University, June 12, 1968. (Photo by Steven Bussard/Harvard Magazine)

Action is the obvious response: to embody the values King espoused. But what if we also need more oratory? Not words instead of action but for action: catalyzing action, shaping action; more rhetoric that moves our minds and bodies; more speech like King's speech that breaks down the status quo and reveals new possibilities.

Our nation suffers from the lack of such speech. We remember Abraham Lincoln calling Americans to their better angels. We remember King's presentation of a dream. We long for such words to accompany us in our deliberations and actions today.

In two speeches after King's death, two invitations Coretta Scott King accepted in her husband's stead, she modeled a way of speaking that is essential to advancing Dr. King's vision in our organizations, communities, nations and world: to be provocative and evocative.

On April 27, 1968, a little more than three weeks after King's assassination, Coretta Scott King spoke to a peace rally in Central Park. She was provocative, which means she did not hesitate to tell the truth, even if that truth made some uncomfortable.

"There is no reason why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted by poverty, disease and illiteracy," she said. "It is plain that we don’t care about our poor people, except to exploit them as cheap labor and victimize them through excessive rents and consumer prices." 

On June 12, 1968, at Harvard University's Class Day, amid student organizing and protests on campuses nationwide, she was evocative, which means she affirmed the energy of her audience. She knew she did not have to cajole the crowd to action. Instead she acknowledged the momentum of the student movement and connected it to the civil rights movement. She extolled the giftedness of the students, and celebrated the contributions they would make to a more just world.

"I am a religious person in the most unqualified sense of the word," she told the Harvard students, "but I will say emphatically that there is more moral vitality and honest searching for values of life animating the campuses today than can be found in our churches."

In her closing she saluted the students. "Finally, in struggling to give meaning to your own lives, as students you are preserving the best in our traditions and are breaking new ground in your restless search for truth."

And in her final sentence to send the students into the world with confidence in their strength, she summed up the power of her own speech-making: "With this creative force to inspire all of us we may yet not only survive — we may triumph."