RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to a crowd gathered in a church in Memphis. It would turn out to be the night before he was assassinated.

A thunderstorm was swirling outside. The shutters banged against the walls. Still, the hall was packed.

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Leader): 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: This last speech came to be known as the Mountaintop Speech, and over the next few days, we're going to meet a few of the people who were there.

The Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles was one of them. He was a friend of King's and the pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, which he still leads today. The Reverend Kyles joins us from Memphis. And thank you for being on the program.

Reverend SAMUEL BILLY KYLES (Monumental Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee): It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Will you please put us into the moment? What was Martin Luther King doing in your city that April of 1968?

Rev. KYLES: The garbage workers had gone on strike in Memphis. Their working conditions were so bad, and the leadership really tried to get them to go back and wait until the summer when you have the flies and stench and all that, but they simply refused to go back. They said no.

Out of that came a very powerful sign that became a symbol. It didn't say freedom. It didn't say justice. All it said was I am a man, and they were treated less than men. And when you really get a movement going, you know when it's time to send for Martin Luther King.

MONTAGNE: King covered a lot of group in this speech, from the broad sweep of world history to the striking garbage men there in Memphis. But then the speech builds to what feels eerie now, and certainly a prophetic conclusion. Tell us about that.

Rev. KYLES: There had been so many death threats against his life, especially since he had come out against the war in Vietnam. But he talked about death more that night than we'd heard him talk about it in a long while.

He talked about the stabbing, the demented black woman who came up to him in Harlem - he was autographing books - and said are you Martin Luther King? He said yes. He never looked up. He was autographing books. She reached over the table and plunged a letter opener into his chest, and when he was recovering, he said he does remember a teenage girl who wrote: Dear Dr. King, I read about your misfortune, and I'm so sorry.

The newspapers said the blade of the letter opener 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 so glad you didn't sneeze.

And he took up on that and did a whole litany: And I'm glad I didn't sneeze. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the Selma-to-Montgomery march. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the young people sitting in all over the South for their rights.

Rev. KING: If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, 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…

Rev. KYLES: By that time, we were on our feet. Many of us, grown men, were crying. We didn't know why we were crying. We had no way of knowing that would be the last speech of his life. And then he took us to the mountaintop. He said I may not get there with you, but you will get to the promised land, because God has allowed me to go up on the mountain and I have looked over, and I've seen the promised land.

And I am so certain he knew he wouldn't get there, but he wouldn't tell us that. That would've been too heavy for us, so he softened it. And tonight, he closes out by saying, tonight, I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord. And we had to help him to his seat behind that powerful, prophetic speech.

MONTAGNE: Do you remember what you were thinking at that moment that the speech ended?

Rev. KYLES: It was like - I said he preached himself through the fear of death. He just got it out of him. He just dealt with it, and it was like what did he know that we didn't know?

MONTAGNE: Forty years is a biblical number of years, a passage to have crossed. Here you are 40 years later. What is it like to listen to this speech today?

Rev. KYLES: I don't know - I don't even know how to process it's been 40 years. I take issue with those people who say, oh, it's worse now than it was then. The only reason you can say that is because you were not here then.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, if Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he'd be 79 years old, and he would see that a black man has a realistic chance to become the next president of the United States.

Rev. KYLES: And my heart leaps for joy to see it. Think of how far we had to come. It was illegal for my ancestors to know how to read during slavery, illegal to know how to read, came to this country in chains. And we go from that - my goodness - to the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama.

And then I can see cities that have African-American mayors, and my God, governors, my goodness. And I traveled the length and breadth of this country as a witness, speaking to young people who were not born and their parents were children, letting them know that the dream - we're not going to get to the place where we say Dr. King's dream has been realized, now we can go to the beach. That's not going to happen. Much of it has been realized, but there is so much to do. But each generation will have its portion, and that helps to keep the dream alive.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Rev. KYLES: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: The Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles is pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was with Martin Luther King, Jr., when he delivered his last speech, 40 years ago today, and he was with King one day later, when he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel. You can see a video excerpt of King's final speech at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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