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Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., half-length portrait, facing front. World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico, 1964.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-126559

On Monday, January 19, we will be celebrating the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. King, the foremost leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, was actually born eighty-six years ago today: January 15, 1929.  The Civil Rights Movement has struggled and continues to struggle for equal rights for all people, and has a special strength and urgency in the African American community.  In honor of Dr. King, the research centers at the Library of Congress, including the American Folklife Center, will be closed on Monday. I hope you’ll have a chance to reflect on how the vision, bravery, and hard work of Dr. King are reflected in his own speeches and actions, and in the actions of the many people he inspired.

To help you do this, I’ve selected two very different videos from AFC’s folklore and oral history collections to embed in this blog post.  Each sheds a different kind of light on the legacy of Dr. King.  One is more folkloristic, the other more historical. One is more analytical, the other more personal. I hope together, they’ll build an interesting portrait of Dr. King.  With each of them, I’ll post a link to a related resource.

The first video is an informative and engaging lecture by Dr. Wolfgang Mieder, emeritus professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont. Dr. Mieder is one of the world’s foremost folklorists.  He is also special to me personally, as a friend and mentor, and a member of my dissertation committee when I earned my PhD. in the 1990s. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here without him! For years, he has included among his main research interests the use of traditional proverbs in political discourse. This lecture is entitled “Making a Way Out of No Way: Martin Luther King’s Use of Proverbs for Civil Rights.” In it, he traces one element of Dr. King’s brilliant oratory, the humble proverb:

For full bibliographic information about the lecture, more information about the speaker, a full transcript of the lecture, and other resources, please visit this link.

Our next video is an oral history interview With Clarence B. Jones.  Jones shares memories from his work as a legal advisor and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In particular, he describes his significant contributions to the “I Have a Dream” speech, which King delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. He vividly recalls the dramatic moment when, at the prodding of the famed gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. King departed from the prepared speech to extemporaneously share his “dream” of freedom and justice with the crowds on the Mall and across the country and the world.  Jones also describes his early life and talks about his education at Columbia University, his training as a classical clarinetist, and some of his early encounters with leftist politics while in New York. He describes his time spent in the military during the Korean War. Other topics discussed in the interview include Jones’s marriage to Anne Norton, his studies at Boston University Law School, and his move to California to become an entertainment lawyer:

The interview with Jones is part of AFC’s Civil Rights History Project.  Find out more about the project, and see all the interviews in the online collection, at this link.

As always, thank you for reading Folklife Today.  We wish you a safe, happy, and non-violent Martin Luther King Day!


  1. Thank you so much for sharing these interviews. I was transfixed by Mr. Jones’ recollections.

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