On a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 (the month before I graduated from high school), Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead.
On the night of April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed, he spoke. It’s called his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
If you corner me, and say “Randy, what are the most important speeches to read from Dr. King,” after my first thought (read them all!), I would say these 4, +1 “essay/letter”:
#1 — I Have a Dream – August 28, 1963 – Washington D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial — The March on Washington for Job and Freedom (read the speech here).
#2 – Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize – December 10, 1964, University of Oslo (read the speech here).
#3 — How Long, Not Long (Our God is Marching On!) — March 25, 1965 – Montgomery, Alabama, on the Steps of the State Capitol — At the conclusion of the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Ala. (read the speech here).
#4 — I’ve Been to the Mountaintop – April 3, 1968, — Memphis, Tennessee; Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) (read the speech here).
And, be sure to read this:
#5 — Letter from Birmingham Jail – April 16, 1963 — written in his jail cell, Birmingham, Alabama (read his letter here).
But, on this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is a favorite passage/story. He tells it in his last speech. It will explain why I too am glad that he did not sneeze. Notice the brilliant summary history of the “Modern” Civil Rights Movement. And this excerpt captures one of his great rhetorical gifts, his use of parallel structure. (I’ve bolded the repeated line). From the speech:
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. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. 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. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,
Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.
And she said,
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, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
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.
And in this speech, he summarized his entire life’s message in one sentence. It is a great sentence. If you read I Have a Dream carefully, you can see that this sentence summarizes that speech perfectly. Here’s the sentence. It is a good reminder, and call, and mission for us all, this day and every day:
All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.”
America, be true to what you said on paper. It’s about time, don’t you think?
How to best honor this special day? How about reading one of these speeches carefully. After all, he is known for his words, along with his deeds…