Martin Luther King Jr.: Beyond “I Have a Dream”

The right wing twists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to attack anti-racist education, focusing almost exclusively on MLK’s “I have a dream” declaration.

But Dr. King was a radical — in the most profound sense.

He denounced the Vietnam war, when it was politically risky, and did not mince words about U.S. racism: “The doctrine of white supremacy was imbedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit. It became a structural part of the culture.”

On this holiday weekend, take a moment to read King in context, including his thoughts on Reconstruction, war, nuclear weapons, and police brutality.

Cartoon used with permission of artist Barry Deutsch.


On War

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death . . .

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. — Martin Luther King Jr., A Revolution of Values

Check out our growing list of resources for teaching about Palestine and Israel.

On Nuclear Weapons

These days, some textbooks acknowledge Dr. King’s critique of the Vietnam War. However, King’s actions against nuclear weapons began a full decade earlier in the late 1950s. From 1957 until his death, through speeches, sermons, interviews, and marches, King consistently protested the use of nuclear weapons and war. King called for an end to nuclear testing, asking, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?” — Vincent Intondi in “The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb”

On Police Brutality

In a lesser-known part of his March on Washington speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” He described “the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer” in northern cities as a “system of internal colonialism” where police and the courts act as “enforcers.” — Jeanne Theoharis in The Atlantic


Here are resources about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., beyond the traditional narrative.


A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Book) | Zinn Education Project
Memphis Martin and the Mountaintop 9781629797182 (Book Cover) | Zinn Education Project

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis

Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by James E. Ransome (Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.)

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Calkins Creek Books)

The Radical King by Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Cornel West (Beacon Press)

Lessons and Articles

A Revolution of Values Teaching Activity based on speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King on Reconstruction” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from The Radical King (Beacon Press).

Growing Up Racist in the Shadow of Dr. King” by David McGrath. Chicago Sun Times

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Challenge to Liberal Allies — and Why it Resonates Today” by Jeanne Theoharis. Washington Post

“Martin Luther King Knew That Fighting Racism Meant Fighting Police Brutality” by Jeanne Theoharis. The Atlantic

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Strong Friend of Labor” by Peter Cole. Chicago Sun Times

My Trip to the Land of Gandhi” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stanford University MLK Research and Education Institute.

“The Crisis in America’s Cities: Martin Luther King Jr. on What Sparked the Violent Urban Riots of the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Atlantic.

“The Man Who Was a Fool, Sermon Delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches’ Noon Lenten Services” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stanford University MLK Research and Education Institute

The Sanctification — and Sanitization — of Martin Luther King Jr.” by P. R. Lockhart. Vox.

W. E. B. Du Bois to Coretta Scott King: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb” by Vincent Intondi. Zinn Education Project.

When Martin Luther King Jr. Came Up Against Chicago Racism” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Truthout.


MLK 1967 | Zinn Education Project

At the River I Stand Documentary film on the African American sanitation workers’ 1968 fight for human dignity and a living wage in Memphis.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Beyond Vietnam”  Dramatic reading of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” (1967) speech by Michael Ealy.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in His Own Words 2020 segment of Democracy Now!

This Day In History

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks Refuses to Give Up Her Seat

Dec. 1961: Christmas Shopping Boycott

Aug. 28, 1963: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

March 26, 1964: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

April 30, 1967: “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” Speech

March 14, 1968: King Speaks About the “Other America” in the North

March 22, 1968: March for Justice and Jobs

May 12, 1968: The Poor People’s Campaign Began

Class: The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You Won’t Read About in Textbooks

On January 10, 2022, the Zinn Education Project hosted historian Jeanne Theoharis in conversation with Jesse Hagopian about the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not found in textbooks and school curricula. As Theoharis notes in The Atlantic, “Critics of Black Lives Matter have held up King as a foil to the movement’s criticisms of law enforcement, but those are views that King himself shared. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, ‘We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.’ King understood that police brutality — like segregation — wasn’t just a southern problem.”

Below is a video recording of the class.

Below is an audio recording of the class. Find other audio recordings from the Zinn Education Project Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes here.

Presenters: Jeanne Theoharis is a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College. She is the author or co-author of nine books and numerous articles on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the politics of race and education. Her books include the award-winning titles The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools, the co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

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