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"We Need Each Other in this Nation"

February 11, 2013
Martin Luther King in Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. via National Archives and Records Administration, ARC ID#542014

As we celebrate Black History Month, I am excited to share an interesting discovery that came to light recently in the PHS archives. PHS archivist Bill Brock, while reviewing a box of reel-to-reel audio tapes, noticed one that was marked “MLK Speech at Charlotte.” After listening to the tape, researching related records at PHS, and checking archival resources on the Internet, Bill learned that the tape was indeed of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reel-to-reel tape contained a speech by King given on September 21, 1966 at a rally in the Hartley-Woods Gymnasium at Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina.

King’s address that night in Charlotte was sponsored by the Synod of Catawba Commission on Religion and Race in cooperation with the National Commission on Religion and Race of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Prominent African American Presbyterians were present at that event, including historian Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore, Dr. Reginald A. Hawkins, and Hosea Williams.

King reiterates many of the themes that had become familiar refrains from previous speeches. But this speech focuses upon what he believed to be the most pressing problem facing the nation in 1966. “[O]ur nation,” he says, “suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to her scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to swim the sea like fish, and we’ve learned to fly in the air like birds, yet we haven’t learned the simple law of walking the earth living together as brothers and sisters.”

King notes that this “spiritual and moral lag” manifests itself in the continuing problems of racial injustice and poverty throughout the nation. Both must be dealt with if we are to survive and grow. King describes two images of America: one defined by beauty and prosperity and the other scarred by poverty and oppression where more than 22 million African Americans find themselves unemployed, underemployed, and living in substandard housing.

King identifies it as the challenge of every Christian and person of good will to eliminate poverty so that “all of God’s children will have the basic necessities of life.” Americans, regardless of their race, he notes, are bound together. “Whether we like it or not,” King concludes, “we need each other in this nation.”

Forty-five years after his assassination, Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did on that night in Charlotte so many years ago.

Learn more about Presbyterian involvement in the Civil Rights movement in this exhibit.