There are two very misconstrued quotes from King. The first is “My Dream turned into a nightmare” from his 1967 Christmas Eve Sermon broadcast on the Canadian Broadcast Channel. The other is “I have integrated by people into a burning house.” Most use these quotes as proof that toward the end of Dr. King’s life he abandoned integration for black separatism or black militancy. Looking at both of these quotes, more rigorously will help us understand what King meant.
The exact quote from the Christmas Eve Speech was:
“Toward the end of that afternoon (March on Washington), I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.”
In this speech, he explains his frustration at the amount of violence blacks have encountered in the Civil Rights Movement. But his frustration led him to double down on his philosophy of integration. In the speech, he goes on to say that hope is what keeps people alive, and he would never lose faith in the cause.
The 1967 Christmas Sermon is just one of five Massey Lectures. The Massey series was something the Canadian Broadcast Channel did to showcase significant contemporary thought leaders. If one reviews the entire Dr. King Massey Lecture series in the book Trumpet of Conscience his philosophy on social justice is thoroughly explained. He sees the first stage of the movement as removing the legal basis of segregation. The movement was now in its second phase, world-centric humanitarianism. In this movement, the focus was on empowering all underprivileged people all over the world. He espoused global egalitarianism manifested in his opposition to the Vietnam War.
The second quote on the “burning house” comes from a story told by Harry Belafonte. Here is the quote from The New York Amsterdam News:
According to Belafonte, King responded, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know we will win, but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had, and I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears the soul of this nation. I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Belafonte added, “That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle.”
Belafonte said he asked King, “What should we do?” and King replied that we should, “become the firemen.” King said, “Let us not stand by and let the house burn.”
So again, Dr. King did not want to evacuate the house. Instead, he wanted us to be agents of change and harbingers of a new moral code. A full retelling of Belafonte’s story is consistent with what was expressed in the Massey Lectures.
However, the best way to understand if Dr. King gave up on the idea of would-be evaluating his last efforts in organizing. He died while building “The Poor People’s Campaign.” In 1967, King announced a plan to bring thousands of poor people from across the nation to a new March on Washington. Their first meeting in March 1968 had leaders from many trade unions, civil rights organizations, and academia. This effort was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic initiative to fight for class issues. They pushed for an economic bill of rights that included social programs, the elimination of slums, and a full-employment initiative. Nothing in the campaign singled out blacks or abandoned integration.
- The New York Amsterdam News“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: I fear I am Integrating My People Into a Burning House” 01/12/2017 http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2017/jan/12/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-i-fear-i-am-integrating-m/
- Santa Clara University Website: “Harry Belafonte Reflections on Peace” https://legacy.scu.edu/ethics/architects-of-peace/Belafonte/essay.html