Martin Luther King on Our March to Freedom

Postage stamp issued by Ghana two years after Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a 1966 military coup
Postage stamp issued by Ghana in 1968

Soon after the desegregation of public transportation in December, 1956 in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King attended the festivities celebrating the independence of Ghana in West Africa.  Ghana was the first English speaking African nation to achieve independence and Dr. King drew inspiration and strength from this historic milestone.  The Sunday after his return to the U.S. he preached at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery on Ghana’s, and our own, march toward freedom and liberation.

The following excerpts from the sermon speak to Congolese and to us all as we seek the “freedom land” God intended for us as human beings.  The dots indicate the end of an excerpt.  To read the sermon in its entirety, go to:

“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land    .……

And this was the struggling that had been going on for years. It was now coming to the point that this little nation was moving

Dr. and Mrs. King met Vice President Nixon for the first time at the Independence Ball
Dr. and Mrs. King met Vice President Nixon at the Independence Ball

toward its independence. Then came the continual agitation, the continual resistance, so that the British Empire saw that it could no longer rule the Gold Coast. And they agreed that on the sixth of March, 1957, they would release this nation. This nation would no longer be a colony of the British Empire, that this nation would be a sovereign nation within the British Commonwealth. All of this was because of the persistent protest, the continual agitation on the part of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and the other leaders who worked along with him and the masses of people who were willing to follow. ……….

And when Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, “We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,” all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.

After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:

Free at last! Free at last!

Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!  ..……

And I want to take just a few more minutes as I close to say three or four things that this reminds us of and things that it says to us—things that we must never forget as we ourselves find ourselves breaking loose from an evil Egypt, trying to move through the wilderness toward the promised land of cultural integration. Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it. And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire. Freedom is never given to anybody, for the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up. And that is where the strong resistance comes. Privil­­eged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance. ……………….

It says to us another thing. It reminds us of the fact that a nation or a people can break loose from oppression without violence. Nkrumah says in the first two pages of his autobiography, which was published on the sixth of March—a great book which you ought to read—he said that he had studied the social systems of social philosophers and he started studying the life

The Duchess of Kent dancing with President Nkrumah symbolized for Dr. King the "beloved community" non violent struggle sought to create
The Duchess of Kent dancing with President Nkrumah foreshadowed for Dr. King the “beloved community” non violent struggle seeks to create

of Gandhi and his techniques. And he said that in the beginning he could not see how they could ever get loose from colonialism without armed revolt, without armies and ammunition, rising up. Then he says after he continued to study Gandhi and continued to study this technique, he came to see that the only way was through nonviolent positive action. And he called his program “positive action.” And it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? That here is a nation that is now free, and it is free without rising up with arms and with ammunition. It is free through nonviolent means. Because of that the British Empire will not have the bitterness for Ghana that she has for China, so to speak. Because of that, when the British Empire leaves Ghana, she leaves with a different attitude than she would have left with if she had been driven out by armies. We’ve got to revolt in such a way that after revolt is over we can live with people as their brothers and their sisters. Our aim must never be to defeat them or humiliate them.   ………

But finally Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. That’s what it tells us, now. You can interpret Ghana any kind of way you want to, but Ghana tells me that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up, I saw something else. That wasn’t just an Ephemeral, evanescent event appearing on the stage of history, but it was an event with eternal meaning, for it symbolizes something. That thing symbolized to me that an old order is passing away and a new order is coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now, and a new order of justice and freedom and goodwill is being born. That’s what it said: that somehow the forces of justice stand on the side of the universe, and that you can’t ultimately trample over God’s children and profit by it.  ……….

And I say to you this morning, my friends, rise up and know that, as you struggle for justice, you do not struggle alone, but God struggles with you. And He is working every day. Somehow I can look out, I can look out across the seas and across the universe, and cry out, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Then I think about it, because His truth is marching on, and I can sing another chorus: “Hallelujah, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”

Then I can hear Isaiah again, because it has profound meaning to me, that somehow, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

That’s the beauty of this thing: all flesh shall see it together. Not some from the heights of Park Street and others from the dungeons of slum areas. Not some from the pinnacles of the British Empire and some from the dark deserts of Africa. Not some from inordinate, superfluous wealth and others from abject, deadening poverty. Not some white and not some black, not some yellow and not some brown, but all flesh shall see it together. They shall see it from Montgomery. They shall see it from New York. They shall see it from Ghana. They shall see it from China.

For I can look out and see a great number, as John saw, marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.”

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