Martin Luther King’s final speech analysed by Fintan O’Toole
King delivered this speech on April 3rd, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot next day
This is an edited version of the “Mountaintop speech”, delivered by Martin Luther King on April 3rd, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.
Next day, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. King was addressed striking sanitation workers in the city.
Below, in a series of annotations, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole picks the key moments in an extraordinary speech from one of the 20th century’s greatest orators.
Thank you very kindly, my friends. I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.
[King was addressing more than 2,500 striking sanitation workers and their supports who had defied a storm to pack into the Mason Temple. He had not planned to speak at all. He had a sore throat and seemed exhausted and depressed. But the size and enthusiasm of the crowd forced him to perform.]
And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.
[The sanitation workers were the lowest of the low, mocked as “walking buzzards”. King immediately elevates them by including them in a great sweep of history and implicitly linking them to the biblical Exodus, making them God’s chosen people.]
And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon.
But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man.
But I wouldn’t stop there.
[This use of repetition is a classical rhetorical device. King deploys it both to give a hypnotic rhythm to his speech and to propel his listeners forward as they wait to hear where in this time-travelling journey he will choose to alight.]
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.
But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
[King subtly punctures the belief that white people liberated the blacks, implying that blacks must continue to pressure vacillating presidents.]
But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but “fear itself”.
But I wouldn’t stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it.
Survival demands that we grapple with them.
Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it.
It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.
[King’s opposition to the Vietnam war and nuclear arms had lost him many allies, not least President Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had worked to secure the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But he was not going to preach non-violence to the ruled without doing the same to the rulers.]
That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
I can remember – I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled.
But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.
And that’s all this whole thing is about.
We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people.
[King’s central message was always about human dignity. He saw oppression as dehumanising both those who suffered it and those who inflicted it.]
We are saying – We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often.
I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.
[King harks back to the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, five years previously. Bull Connor was the racist police chief who set Alsatians and fire hoses on the protesters. But King lifts this story out of mere historical anecdote. He will link the unquenchable fire inside the protesters to the prophet Jeremiah and the “fire shut up in his bones”. The Birmingham activists become prophets – of victory in Memphis today and of justice that is coming.]
And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday.
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up.
The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest.
Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery.
And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood – that’s the end of you.It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.
[King revisits an incident in Harlem in 1958 when he was almost killed by a deranged woman. Like his later recounting of the bomb threats against the plane on which he has just travelled to Memphis, this introduces the idea that he is on borrowed time, that death is waiting to claim him. This also harks back to the beginning of the speech – he has been granted his wish to spend a little time in the 20th century and lays no claim to more. His seven repetitions of “if I had sneezed” bring him to the seven great moments in the Civil Rights struggle that he might have missed – but was spared to partake in.]
Well, about four days later, they allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. It said simply,
“Dear Dr King. I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.
“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
And I want to say tonight – I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters.
And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed – If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.
But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
[Having begun in depression and exhaustion, King was now, according to Jesse Jackson who was with him, “lifted up and had some kind of mysterious aura around him”. He was entering an almost mystical vision. This phrase is from the Book of Revelations, in which an angel carries John “away to a great high mountain”. It is also linked in the next sentences to Moses who, having led his people out of captivity, sees the promised land from a mountaintop but knows he will never reach it. In King’s extraordinary images, he is resigned to death before liberation is achieved. He has been granted a special vision of it and that is enough.]
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!