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To Dream, But Not to Sleep
Written January 18, 2016


Background:  When I graduated from high school with my Class of 1965, I was preparing to enroll at Oberlin College that autumn.  Four years older than I, and also graduating that spring, were the members of the college’s own Class of 1965.

Oberlin’s commencement speaker on June 14 was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His full address was published in the Alumni Magazine and is still available online.  Here’s my condensation of it, about half as long as the original.

(For a later version using the same title, which Dr. King delivered in Washington, D.C., in the last week of his life, click here.)


I can never come to this campus without a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that this great institution has done for the cultural, political, and social life of our nation and the world.

By all standards of measurement, Oberlin is one of the great colleges, not only of our nation, but of the world.

To the members of the graduating class:  Today you bid farewell to the safe security of the academic environment.  You prepare to continue your journey on the clamorous highways of life.  And I would like to have you think with me on this significant occasion on the subject:

Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

I'm sure that you have read that story from Washington Irving entitled “Rip Van Winkle.”  The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years.  But there is another point that is almost always completely overlooked:  It was a sign on the inn from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep.  When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England.  When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington.  Rip was completely lost; he knew not who he was.  The most striking fact is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution.

There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands.  A great revolution is taking place in our world today. The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake.

First, I'd like to say that we are challenged to achieve a world perspective.

Anyone who feels that we can live in isolation today, anyone who feels that we can live without being concerned about other individuals and other nations, is sleeping through a revolution.

The world in which we live is geographically one. The great challenge now is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.  We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.

I remember some time ago Mrs. King and I had the privilege of journeying to that great country, India.  And I never will forget the experience — it was a marvelous experience — to meet and talk with the great leaders, with the hundreds of thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country.  But I say to you this morning, my friends, that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry?  How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night; no beds to sleep in; no houses to go into?

As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out, “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?”  And an answer came, “Oh no! because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”

I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in our country to store surplus food, and I said to myself, “I know where we can store food free of charge — in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God's children in Asia and Africa, in South America, and in our own nation who go to bed hungry at night.”

All I'm saying is simply this:  that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

I would like to mention, secondly, that we are challenged to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of racial injustice in all its dimensions.

Anyone who feels that our nation can survive half segregated and half integrated is sleeping through a revolution.

The challenge before us today is to develop a coalition of conscience and get rid of this problem that has been one of the nagging and agonizing ills of our nation over the years.

The Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder.  He finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.  Millions of Negroes are still housed in unendurable slums; millions of Negroes are still forced to attend totally inadequate and substandard schools.  And we still see, in certain sections of our country, violence and man's inhumanity to man in the most tragic way.

In the final analysis, racial injustice must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong.

Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem.  Time is neutral.  It can be used either constructively or destructively.  The people of ill will in our nation — the extreme rightists — the forces committed to negative ends — have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.  Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.  So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

Now there is another problem facing us that we must deal with if we are to remain awake through a social revolution.  We must get rid of violence, hatred, and war.

Anyone who feels that the problems of mankind can be solved through violence is sleeping through a revolution.

I've said this over and over again, and I believe it more than ever today.  I am convinced that violence ends up creating many more social problems than it solves.  This is why I say to my people that if we succumb to the temptation of using violence in our struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness.

There is another way — a way as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi.  For it is possible to stand up against an unjust system with all of your might, with all of your body, with all of your soul, and yet not stoop to hatred and violence.  Something about this approach disarms the opponent.  It exposes his moral defenses, weakens his morale, and at the same time, works on his conscience.  He doesn't know how to handle it.  So it is my great hope that, as we struggle for racial justice, we will follow that philosophy and method of non-violent resistance, realizing that this is the approach that can bring about that better day of racial justice for everyone.

In international relations, we must find some alternative to war and bloodshed.  But we shall not have the courage, the insight, to deal with such matters unless we are prepared to undergo a mental and spiritual change.

It is not enough to say we must not wage war.  We must love peace and sacrifice for it.  We must fix our visions not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace.  We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, far superior to the discords of war.  Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world.  In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race.

All that I've said is that we must work for peace, for racial justice, for economic justice, and for brotherhood the world over.  We have inherited a big house, a great world house in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Moslem and Hindu.  If we all learn to do this we, in a real sense, will remain awake through a great revolution.

I urge you to continue the tradition that you have followed so long — for this institution has probably done more than any other to support the struggle for racial justice — and we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality.

We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we've made a creative beginning.  And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher who didn't quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great and profound significance:

Lord, we ain't what we oughta be;
We ain't what we wanna be;
We ain't what we're gonna be;
But thank God we ain't what we was!

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