"Give Us the Ballot"

On May 17, 1957, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was held with a program at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. A crowd estimated at 50,000 people attended. The event was co-chaired by A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins with the aim of accomplishing the following goals: commemorating the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on school segregation; protesting terror and violence in the South; showing unity in the demand for civil rights legislation; and paying homage to Abraham Lincoln.

As one of the principal speakers, Dr. King opened his speech by referring to the Supreme Court’s decision three years earlier (May 17, 1954) in Brown v. the Board of Education. He stated that the most urgent thing being requested currently by African Americans, from both the executive and legislative branches of the American government, was the right to vote. He then launched into a litany of all the accomplishments possible for African Americans if they had the vote.

Because his list of expected accomplishments all began with the phrase "Give us the ballot," Dr. King’s speech is often called the "Give Us the Ballot" Speech, and it is one of the most requested documents among his many works. In addition to his call for the ballot for African Americans, Dr. King called for leadership in America from several segments of the population: leadership from the executive and legislative divisions of the federal government in protecting its citizens and providing moral direction; leadership from white liberals in the North by remaining committed to the cause; leadership from white moderates in the South by remaining open-minded; and leadership from the African American community by being calm and strong. On an international note, Dr. King linked the African American struggle for human rights to the African and Asian struggles for independence and freedom, and he urged his listeners to be nonviolent, to love, to be understanding, to seek harmony, and to keep moving ahead with dignity, in spite of the hardships and obstacles.

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November 1999