Power, Prescience of King's 'Mountaintop' Speech

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Of all the speeches that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in his lifetime, "I Have a Dream" is probably the most famous. But his "Mountaintop" speech, delivered extemporaneously the night before his death, is startling in its power and prescience. We hear excerpts from the speech, along with commentary by the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, a Memphis minister who was with King that night.


Tomorrow, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we thought it might be a good time to remember his powerful oratorical skills. His last speech, delivered at the Mason Temple in Memphis the night before his death, is startling in its passion, intensity and prescience. But it turns out King even wasn't suppose to speak that night.

On the 25th anniversary of King's assassination, Liane Hansen and a WEKKEND EDITION crew went to Memphis and spoke with the Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles, a good friend of King's who was with him that night. Kyles related how Ralph Abernathy, vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was supposed to be the featured speaker, but the crowd wanted to hear King instead. So he was convinced to come to the Mason Temple.

Reverend SAMUEL BILLY KYLES: When he got there, we had finished the offering and put Ralph up to introduce him. There were some shutters. If you turn the fans on, the shutters blow out. If you don't, they fold under. But the wind was making them flap and they were making a loud noise. And every time they made a loud noise, Martin would jump and turn around, would jump and turn around. And I saw that was bothering him, so I told the custodian to put the fans on so they'd blow out. It was still thunder, thundering and lightening.

Ralph introduced him for fully 20 minutes. Started when they met, went through this long introduction. And normally, people have a way of letting you know. They say, amen, or they say something for you to quit, and they didn't do that to Ralph. So when Martin got up he commented.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listen to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction, and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. KYLES: And then he went on. He never took a topic. He had no notes. He just started talking. And we've heard him speak, you know, a lot of times, but I promise you - and not just because, you know, it was the last one - and I'm saying, I'd not heard a speech - I've never heard the intensity or the passion, drama in his voice, and how he was delivering it. And he kept getting stronger and stronger. And I mean, you could - I mean, tears started coming out of our eyes. I never heard him dwell on the attempted assassination as much as he did that night.

He said when the person stabbed him in New York, he got a lot of letters and cards from kings and queens. But the one that struck him most came from a 12-year-old girl somewhere in White Plains, New York or someplace. And she said, Dear Dr. King, I read about your misfortune in the New York Times. And it said the knife was so close to your aorta that if you had sneezed you would have drowned in your own blood. And she put at the bottom, I'm glad you didn't sneeze. And he picked up on that and did a whole litany on I'm glad I didn't sneeze.

Dr. KING: 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 interstate state travel. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around 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...

Rev. KYLES: And he kept going and kept building and kept building. And I was saying, my god - I was just to his right, like I was in the right-hand chair and he was up at the podium. I was within three feet of him. Yeah. And sometimes I get up out of a chair and go - when preachers are really going, you just kind of look at them, say, what are you doing? And we do that or sometimes you touch him on the back or something.

And we didn't do any of that, we just stood there like, I mean we stood up. We were on our feet by the time he finished, wasn't like he got through and we stood up. I don't even know when I got on my feet, but we were standing perhaps the whole last 10 minutes of it, we were literally on our feet.

Dr. KING: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. 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. 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Rev. KYLES: We just kind of stood there. My God, you know, what is this? People were crying in the audience. All the preachers were crying. I know I was crying, and we didn't what it was; we just heard something. He really went through something that night. I mean it was like in preparation for his death. He has gotten it out of him; he was all right. He was through. I'm ready for whatever. Maybe it was the fear, he had to get rid of it. I mean he had to let all that go. He just let go. It was something.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: The Reverend Billy Kyles on Martin Luther's King's mountaintop speech. The next day, as Dr. King was about to depart the Lorraine Motel to have dinner at Billy Kyles's house, he was shot and killed.

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