Written by Larry Burris, published on October 16, 2023 , last updated on May 18, 2024

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FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington. (AP Photo, File)

“Talk’s cheap.”  “You need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” “Actions speak louder than words.”  These are all expressions used to convey the idea that action, not just words, can lead to change. This was certainly embodied by Martin Luther King Jr.,  whose life was dedicated to social change. His approach of action through peaceful confrontation was, in many ways, at the heart of the First Amendment.

In 1960, noted essayist A.J. Liebling wrote, “Freedom of the press guaranteed only to those who own one,” the implication being that only giant media corporations have the First Amendment protections necessary to promote a particular media message.

Jerome Barron, former dean of the George Washington Law School, however, took a different tack: “A realistic view of the First Amendment requires recognition that a right of expression is somewhat thin if it can be exercised only at the sufferance of the managers of mass communications.”

In other words, the notion of “freedom of speech” inures to the people as much as it does to media companies.

First Amendment, as a personal right, is essential to self-value

Thomas Emerson said the First Amendment, as a personal right, not only protected speech and the press, but was essential to the development of self-value of the individual:

“Maintenance of a system of free expression is necessary (1) as assuring individual self-fulfillment, (2) as a means of attaining the truth, (3) as a method of securing participation by the members of the society in social, including political, decision-making, and (4) as maintaining the balance between stability and change in the society.”

First Amendment is a check on abusive government

Finally, Vincent Blasi saw the First Amendment as a check on abusive government. In his 1977 essay, he said:

“In the last decade, the First Amendment has had at least as much impact on American life by facilitating a process by which countervailing forces check the misuse of official power as by protecting the dignity of the individual, maintaining a diverse society in the face of conformist pressures, promoting the quest for scientific and philosophic truth, or fostering a regime of “self-government” in which large numbers of ordinary citizens take an active part in political affairs.”

MLK actualized personal rights protected by the First Amendment

These four notions, (1) The rights of free speech, press and assembly (2) as retained by the people (3) for their own personal development, and (4) as protection against overwhelming government control, were actualized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But his was not a sterile philosophical argument discussed over a latte or cappuccino.  His was a pragmatic, action-based philosophy that would be embodied in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and can be illustrated by:

‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ explains nonviolent, yet direct, action

Written April 16, 1963, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s reply to eight white clergymen who had criticized his civil rights activities in Birmingham, Alabama.  The letter is a point-by-point refutation of charges that his actions were untimely, unnecessary and probably illegal. The letter is particularly relevant to the First Amendment clauses dealing with assembly and right to petition the government.

In their comments, the clergymen had described civil rights activities as “extremism.” King, however, notes extremism is bidimensional:  extremism on one end of the political spectrum, those who are complacent and unwilling to fight for freedom, and at the other end, Black nationalist groups.  He notes nonviolent demonstrations, protests and actions are a third way between the two extremes:

“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies — a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.”

‘I Have a Dream’ exhorts listeners to meet physical force with peaceable ‘soul’ force

Only a few months after the Birmingham letter was published, some 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963, participated in a march and rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  Although 10 speakers were officially listed on the program, only King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has survived the test of time.

As in “Letter,” King again stressed the need for peaceful confrontation and challenge.  Although he emphasized how the law had not benefited the Black community, and, indeed, had stifled integration and freedom, he returned to the First Amendment’s protection for peaceable assembly:

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

And what was to be the result of this peaceful confrontation?  Not just confrontation for confrontation’s sake (which King disavowed), but again, the application of inalienable rights leading to self-fulfillment.

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ challenges city’s prohibition against First Amendment-protected speech

King’s “Mountaintop” speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was eerily prescient:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now . . . I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you . . . [but] I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

This was to be his last speech, as King was assassinated the next day.  He was in Memphis in support of sanitation workers. The city had obtained an injunction prohibiting a rally and march, scheduled for April 8. In the “Mountaintop” speech King directly referenced the First Amendment:

“Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

And the result, he said again, would be the furtherance of dignity and self-fulfillment:

“[T]hat’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

As far back as 1692, John Bunyan wrote, “(W)ords are cheap, but a dram of grace is worth all the world.  In 1971 Saul Alinsky in “Rules for Radicals” wrote, “Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Starting with “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” through “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., held white America to its own standards as espoused by the Declaration of Independence and by the First Amendment — standards based on the notion that the ability to speak and act freely leads to self-fulfillment and a check on government.

His was not a debate of the classroom or of the legislature, but of a philosophy of speech and action designed not for one people, but for society as a whole.

Larry Burriss, professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.).

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