Trumpet of Conscience

By Martin Luther King Jr.

218 ratings - 4.47* vote

History has a way, it seems, of turning men in to convenient myths: witness Martin Luther King, whose provocative anti-war sentiments and zealous advocacy of the poor are often shunted to the background to make room for more comfortable outpourings such as his "l have a dream" speech. This book contains five all-but-forgotten speeches from the end of King's life, including History has a way, it seems, of turning men in to convenient myths: witness Martin Luther King, whose

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Book details

Paperback, 96 pages
January 1st 1989 by HarperCollins Publishers

(first published 1968)

Original Title
The Trumpet of Conscience
0062504924 (ISBN13: 9780062504920)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

robin friedman

Martin Luther King's Trumpet of Conscience

The 50th anniversary on April 4, 2018, of Martin Luther King's assassination together with a new book, "To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr." (ed. Shelby and Terry) has prompted me to read or reread some of King's own writings. King's "The Trumpet of Conscience" (1967) was the last of five books King published during his life. It is a short work and consists of five lectures that King delivered in November and December, 1967 fro the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thus, these lectures offer an insight into King's thinking near the end of his life.

These lectures show a more radicalized King than some will remember. When he gave these lectures, King had already spoken out strongly against the Vietnam War, a position which alienated some of his followers. His opposition to the war is repeated in no uncertain terms in the second lecture of this series. Then too, King gave these lectures in the aftermath of riots in American cities that followed King's efforts in the South and the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1963 and 1964. There were some leaders in the civil rights movement that thought King's philosophy of nonviolence inadequate to address the continuing needs of African Americans for economic justice. On the other side, the riots were producing a backlash which impacted King as well as more radical elements. In the five lectures in this book, King addresses both the Vietnam War and the riots.

In "The Trumpet of Conscience", King adheres to his philosophy of nonviolence. However, he pointedly expands its scope. King argues that his movement was never limited to securing voting rights and the end of segregation in the South. Rather, King advocates for an aggressive broader-based non-violent approach to protest poverty, slum housing, militarism, and continued discrimination in the North as well as in the South. The approach would encompass marginal members of American society, not merely African Americans, and in would reach out to similar efforts world-wide. King says in this book that "justice is indivisible" and cannot be limited to ending segregation in the South.

The lectures are interrelated but each has a different focus. The opening lecture examines the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and argues for the continued need for non-violent activity to address economic inequality. He argues that the rioting in the cities was the result of oppressive and unjust activity by the power structure. The second lecture examines the United States' involvement in Vietnam and critiques it as an unjust war which took attention and resources away from domestic needs. The third lecture, "Youth and Social Action" is one of the more interesting in this collection. It examines what King finds to be the lack of spiritual direction in the United States of his day, and it argues that American young people have been adopting a variety of approaches from adaptation to protest, to the hippie lifestyle, to counter a spiritual lack. King wanted to channel youth into the direction of social action. The fourth lecture covers the riots. King continues to disapprove of violence and he argues that his method of non-violence, enhanced to include the issues of economic injustice and militarism, is a better way to gain results than violence. The final lecture, "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" is the most overtly religious of the five. It reminded me that King's vision was basically spiritual and religious. King stresses how human beings are connected with one another and that the human personality is sacred. He writes: "when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won't exploit people, we won't trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won't kill anybody." Perhaps even more fundamentally, King writes:

"If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations."

For those, such as myself, who lived through the tumult of the late 1960s with the Vietnam War, the protests, and the riots, this book will bring back memories and a sense of discomfort. King's book brings that era with all its problems back to life. I found it valuable to look back it this book with the passage of fifty years and to consider King's words calmly and with the passage of time. There is much of value in this book expressed articulately and with passion. Looking back, many readers may properly be skeptical of the call to social revolution, even nonviolent social revolution. I found the strongest part of King's book was his appeal to the transcendent and to spirituality. It remains difficult and controversial about how spirituality is to be applied to the fallen world of daily life.

King is receiving a great deal of deserved attention this year. I am finding that the best way to revere and to learn from King is to read him for oneself with an open mind. Human love, the transcendent, attempts to improve one's society, and reflective, critical thought never go out-of-date.

Robin Friedman

TJ Frostt

My coworker recommended this beautiful collection of lectures by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sometime last year. I decided to spend the morning reading and reflecting. Ironically, this also was one of my #2booksunder50reviews curated by @reggiereads! In 1967, months before King was murdered, he delivered 5 lectures for the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. As I sat pouring over these lectures, I realized many of the struggles and sentiments spilled onto these pages, still resonate today.

The lectures touch on the Civil Rights Movement during the mid 50-60’s, the United States involvement in the Vietnam war (which by this point, King had publicly spoken against), Faith and alternative routes, violence, and the everlasting struggles to freedom and liberation. Collectively, these lectures intersect in a fluid/cohesive manner, while each individually stand alone, firm in their messages. This was a quick read, but one that deserves nurture and reflective thought.

“When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation-perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society” page 44.

Eric Cartier

King composed these five lectures for public broadcast (via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in late 1967. The first two are especially lucid, eloquent, and righteous - they retain their marvelous power now - though all of them are inspired, appealing to whatever kernel of goodness and thirst for justice reside in each of us. Highly recommended for anyone seeking primary source material from one of the great spiritual and political leaders of the 20th century. A few extracts that resonated with me follow:

We are demanding an emergency program to provide employment for everyone in need of a job or, if a work program is impracticable, a guaranteed annual income at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances. It is now incontestable that the wealth and resources of the United States make the elimination of poverty perfectly practicable. (Impasse in Race Relations, 14)

We may now be in the initial period of an era of change as far-reaching in its consequences as the American Revolution. The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. (Impasse in Race Relations, 17)

To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. (Conscience and the Vietnam War, 25)

These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest. (Conscience and the Vietnam War, 31)

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. (Conscience and the Vietnam War, 33)

When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation--perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society. (Youth and Social Action, 44)


It seems obvious now, but I was not aware of King speaking about Vietnam. I greatly enjoyed the eloquence and message. I love that King presents the problem and the possible solution, as well as a message of hope, love, and determination while the solution is struggling to become reality.

Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea

There are 79 pages if you count MLK's bio at the end. That said, what a powerful book. I had always heard speeches, read recollections, but I had never read his words. This collection was awesome. What a great orator and writer. It saddens me that with a few name/date/issue changes, nothing much has changed. And yet so much has changed. I definitely recommend his work. Totally accessible, moving, inspirational, exciting. Loved it.

Oliver Hodson

When old revelations sear you years later it gives you a sense of their power and a need to act. I don't know what I'll do exactly, but the vague waftings of peace and equality that sometimes emanate from my consciousness need flesh and bone! Got to build some skills in me and others that help foster the creative tension and positive revolution away from exploitation.

I also like that he used the story of your morning breakfast involving half the world (different ingredients) coming from all over the world as a parable of the underlying inter-relatedness of the universe and humankind, rather than a fearful concept of how much we are exploiting the planet (as I often take it!).

A great invocation for us to live in hope even while having our eyes open about racism, sexism, unemployment and all inequalities that reduce human society.

Paul Lewis

Very informative book, where each lecture speaks to more or less the idea of non- violence and the need to recognize the dignity of all men through the implementation of just laws.

He doesn’t just centre it on the news for just laws for blacks in the US, but also just laws for all men in the world. There is comments in every lecture on the Vietnam war.

My most memorable lecture I read was “social action and the youth”.

All in all it gives some good insights and good for thought on perennial ideas: truth, justice, and the interconnectedness if all men and nations (more so in the Christmas sermon).


Once upon a time, this collection of broadcast essays was an assigned reading in a class I taught. It was good then, an insight 20 years on, to a different time and place. I’ve read it more than once in the 30 years since, but haven’t thought about it much in the last decade or so. Reading in the wake of 2020’s renewed attention to recurring racial injustice, and amidst a pandemic, King’s insights continue to resonate, whether about why people rise up or how all life is interrelated. Still relevant and still so good, it should be assigned reading.

Pete Davis

Great collection of MLK sermons from the winter of 1967. A great window into the late King, who, refusing to rest on his laurels from his early-60s victories, has moved North and gone global to call for massive civil disobedience to take on urban decay, global poverty and imperial militarism. His final speech is an amazing doubling down on the "I have a dream" message, but with a radical layer added to it.

Hannah Blair

This was my first taste of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. truly unfiltered. I cannot put into words what he did in these 5 lectures. All I can suggest is to read them for yourself. The wisdom and his analysis is invaluable leaving me wondering how to follow it and cultivate a heart for the world like his.