King's Final Speech, Forty Years Ago

The day before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his final speech in Memphis, TN. A portion of that speech can be heard here.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We just heard Bishop Blake talk about why he decided to unveil a new effort to support African and African-American children and to launch that effort at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. That's the place that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last public address. We want to take a few moments now to reflect on King's words from that pulpit, both for its powerful expression and its message. While we don't have the time to air the complete speech, we'd like to offer you this sizeable sampling.

Reverend Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: 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.

Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God once more for allowing me to be here with you.

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City, autographing the first book that I had written. While sitting there autographing books, a 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. 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. 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, you drown 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, they allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and I'll never forget it. It said simply, Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School. She said, while it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am 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 tp 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 to 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation and interstate 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. 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 they were telling me, now it doesn't matter, now. It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning and then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

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, 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.

MARTIN: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Memphis, Tennessee, 40 years ago today. One day before he was killed. And now, we'd like you to tell us more about where you were and what you were doing when you learnt of King's death. Your memories of that day. Call our comment line at 202-842-3522. You can also go to our website at npr.org/tellmemore.

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