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‘Give Us the Ballot’

MOLLIE F. BELT | 11/4/2018, 6:20 p.m.
On May 17, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech, Give Us the Ballot, during the Prayer Pilgrimage ...
Mollie Finch Belt, publisher of The Dallas Examiner

The Dallas Examiner

On May 17, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech, Give Us the Ballot, during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He advocated that if Negroes were given the ballot, they would not have to ask the federal government to solve their problems because they would be able to solve them themselves.

As detailed in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement:

Hoping to prod the federal government to fulfill the promise of the 3-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision, national civil rights leaders called for a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and Stanley Levison organized the Prayer Pilgrimage, which brought together Co-Chairmen A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and King, along with a host of prominent civil rights supporters, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and entertainer Harry Belafonte. Thomas Kilgore of Friendship Baptist Church in New York served as national director of the Pilgrimage. Some 20,000 people listened to three hours of speeches, music and testimony from Southern activists.

Speaking last, King exhorts the president and members of Congress to ensure voting rights for African Americans and indicts both political parties for betraying the cause of justice: “The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing, reactionary Northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.”

Give Us the Ballot speech:

Mr. Chairman, distinguished platform associates, fellow Americans: Three years ago, the Supreme Court of this nation rendered in simple, eloquent and unequivocal language a decision which will long be stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom. Unfortunately, this noble and sublime decision has not gone without opposition. This opposition has often risen to ominous proportions. Many states have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.” But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. [Audience: Yes.]

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot [Audience: Give us the ballot], and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

Give us the ballot [Audience: Give us the ballot], and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.

Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the Southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.

Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.