Martin Luther King Jr.'s 15 minute speech

A lesser-known speech, rising to the occasion, and 7 other things worth your time.

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“The world opened up in Technicolor for me. It was like the Matrix — everything just started to download.”

Valerie Gilbert, a 57-year-old author and audiobook narrator in Manhattan who attended Harvard with Conan O’Brien (and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon with him in the 1980s), on her devotion to QAnon, how it’s ended some of her friendships, and why she posts about it on social media dozens of times a day. (NYT, $)


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What I want to understand today: What was it about Martin Luther King Jr. that led him to become one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement? What was the moment?

There were many times during Martin Luther King Jr.'s life that he showed great leadership.

There's a specific day, however -- and a single speech -- during which he dramatically grabbed hold of that kind of leadership role for the first time.

I know that his most famous speech was "I Have a Dream" in Washington in August 1963. But the moment I'm thinking of was almost eight years earlier: December 5, 1955.

King was just 26 then, unknown, and literally had only 15 minutes to prepare. 

'Hadn't been there long enough'

If he were alive today, King would be 92 m, but he was only 39 when he died. So, his story is really a young man's story throughout. Let’s set part of the chronology quickly:

  • Born in 1929, grew up in Atlanta. Enrolled at Morehouse College at age 15.

  • Graduated at 19, and earned a second bachelor’s degree in divinity, then started a doctoral program in theology at Boston University.

  • While still finishing his doctorate, moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

All of which meant that King was still in his 20s, a pastor for only a year, and had harbored "no ambition to become the leader of a movement," as Louis Menard wrote in The New Yorker, when Rosa Parks, 42, was arrested in that city for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.

Over the next few days, as support for a boycott of the Montgomery busses brewed, King was elected president of the group that formed to organize it (to his surprise at the time, apparently). 

"The advantage of having Dr. King as president," Parks later said, "was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn't been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies."

5,000 people; no notes

I've tried to reacquaint myself with the history of this moment as part of writing this article. Menand's 2018 account in The New Yorker is a great source.

Menard recounts how King became president of the brand-new Montgomery Improvement Association at 6 p.m., and then had to give a speech, as its new leader, in front of a huge crowd at 7.

King rushed home to tell his wife, realizing he was left with only 20 minutes to write his speech—and added later that he lost five of those minutes having a panic attack. 

Five thousand people turned out at the church. King's speech wasn't filmed, but his wife, Coretta Scott King, thought to record an audio version, which you can hear in the YouTube video below. 

It's worth listening to, remembering that it's basically King's first public civil rights speech. (It also lasts almost exactly 15 minutes.)

Already, he's structuring his speech with calls-and-responses, and speaking with poetry. If you're pressed for time, fast forward to about 4:36.

'Found his calling'

The bus boycott ran for 381 days, crippling the system's finances.

Black people walked, or took Black-owned cabs (the drivers lowered their rates to match the bus fares). Later, when the city cracked down on taxi drivers, they organized carpools. 

There was violence: King's house was firebombed two months after his speech. Some Black citizens boycotting the busses were physically attacked. Then, the city indicted the carpool drivers (and King) for interfering with the bus system.

(King spent two weeks in jail.)

Eventually the busses were desegregated, but as much because of an accompanying lawsuit, as the boycott itself; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in November 1956 that that bus segregation is unconstitutional. 

Of course, this was just the beginning as far as King and the civil rights movement were concerned. But that evening, that speech, and those 15 minutes, set the course of the remainder of King's life.

As Menard wrote: "King inspired not just his listeners that day. He inspired himself. He must have realized, when he stepped down from the pulpit, that he had found his calling."


7 other things worth your time

  • Life in DC: The capitol is on almost complete lockdown (photo array) ahead of the inauguration. President-elect Biden plans a series of executive orders his team is calling “shock and awe” to show how radically different he expects the country’s priorities to be, along with legislative proposals including a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants. Vice president-elect Harris will resign her Senate seat today in advance of the inauguration Wednesday. (Axios, Yahoo News, Fox News)

  • Unsurprising but still worth tracking: Kids’ screen time has gone up a lot during the pandemic—of course, so has your humble newsletter writer’s. About 70 percent of parents say their kids spend at least four hours a day looking at screens now. Games took up the most time, followed by “school/homework,” social media, and then movies/TV and messaging—although there’s a lot of variation by age. (Morning Consult)

  • Luke Mogelson of The New Yorker was inside the Senate chamber and elsewhere in the Capitol during the insurrection Jan. 6. His raw video is pretty intense, including people rifling through papers that were left behind when senators evacuated the chamber, and a single Capitol police officer trying to persuade them to leave. (The New Yorker)

  • Axios is putting together a real “fly on the wall” account of the two competing legal teams that tried to guide President Trump’s legal strategy after the November election. They frame it as (a) the team that thought they had a 5 to 10% chance of success, and (b) the competing team that told the president the first team was lying to him, and claimed a much broader worldwide conspiracy. (Axios)

  • Today in Bitcoin… A Welsh man who says he accidentally threw away a hard drive with the keys to what would now be a $275 million fortune is offering his local community a 25% cut if they’ll let him excavate a landfill. So far they’ve turned him down, citing the environmental impact and lack of guarantee that he’d find the hard drive in working order. (CNN)

  • Read to the end… An Indian journalist shared the story of how she was invited to consider applying for a teaching position at Harvard, went through an interview process, got an offer, gave notice at her employer, prepared to move to Massachusetts, started to get frustrated at the slow bureaucratic process, began asking questions—and then realized that the whole thing (she now alleges) had been an elaborate, months-long phishing scheme. (NDTV)

  • NEWS YOU CAN USE: How to keep your superyacht Covid-free. (The Guardian)


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Pixabay. I’ve written about this speech before at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, gosh, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.  

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