The Trumpet of Conscience features five lectures that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in November and December 1967 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Massey Lectures. Founded in 1961 to honor Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada, the annual Massey Lectures served as a venue for earlier speakers such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Goodman. The event, sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Massey College, is broadcast each year on the CBC Radio One show “Ideas.” Prior to King’s assassination, the book was released under the title Conscience for Change, through the CBC. After King’s death in 1968, the book was republished as The Trumpet of Conscience, and included a foreword written by Coretta Scott King. The book reveals some of King’s most introspective reflections and his last impressions of the movement.
Each of the five orations encompasses a distinct theme pertinent to the African American civil rights struggle. In his first talk, “Impasse in Race Relations,” King notes that although “the white backlash declared true equality could never be a reality in the United States,” he felt that “mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” (King, Trumpet, 10; 15). The second lecture, “Conscience and the Vietnam War,” is a close parallel to the “Beyond Vietnam” speech that King gave at New York City’s Riverside Church in April 1967, in opposition to the war. “Youth and Social Action,” King’s third lecture, envisions the mobilized power of a united youth front in which “hippies,” “radicals,” and other youth activists work in tandem to combine their strengths (King, Trumpet, 49). In “Nonviolence and Social Change,” King defends nonviolent resistance as a political tool to convince “the wielders of power” to respond to national poverty (King, Trumpet, 62).
King’s concluding speech was a live broadcast of his 1967 Christmas Eve sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” The sermon illuminates King’s long-term vision of nonviolence as a path to world peace and contains many of King’s classical oratorical set pieces, including his description of agape. In his concluding comments, King refers to his remarks at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and admits, “Not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare” (King, Trumpet, 76). He reviews the recent setbacks the movement faced, including violence during the Birmingham Campaign, persistent poverty, urban race riots, and an escalation of the war in Vietnam, and notes, “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes” (King, Trumpet, 76). In spite of these hurdles, King reassures his congregation: “I still have a dream. I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers” (King, Trumpet, 76–77).