Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final public speech. Hours before his assassination, he spoke of the injustice felt by the city's striking sanitation workers. But, prophetically, he also touched on death and his own mortality.
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Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech

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Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech

Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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

MARTIN LUTHER KING: 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: 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.

SAMUEL BILLY KYLES: 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?

BILLY KYLES: 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.

BILLY 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.

LUTHER KING: 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.

LUTHER KING: 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.

LUTHER KING: 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...

BILLY KYLES: 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?

BILLY 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?

BILLY 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.

BILLY KYLES: 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.

BILLY 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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