50 years ago today Martin Luther King was assassinated; shot dead on a motel balcony.
The day before before these terrible events, Dr King gave his last speech in the cavernous surroundings of Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee. It has become known as the “Mountain Top” Speech, in reference to the famous final passage of the speech in which he appears to foretell his own death.
“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!”
For many years these were the only lines remembered. But in fact the whole speech is touched with a sense of mortality. The opening to the speech imagines the Almighty asking him “Which Age would you like to live in?” and Dr King responds by thinking of himself among the great names of Ancient Greece, around the Parthenon. And then among the visionary artists of the Renaissance and with his namesake Martin Luther and with Abraham Lincoln on the day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
And then he closes this first sequence by saying:
“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."
Later in the speech he recalls being stabbed at a book signing in New York City:
“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.”
And he recounts how he received a message from a young woman, who had written to him while he was in hospital:
"Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. 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.
Dr King then builds out a long and brilliant list around the repetition of “If I had sneezed”:
“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.”
The list is a sparkling and poignant summary of the highlight of his glittering career; his legacy to civil rights.
It is a most moving speech: not simply for Dr King’s reflections on mortality, but for the two ideas which run central to the speech. That as an “American Negro” his audience was individually poor in comparison to white people. But collectively, they are:
“we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine.”
It is the power of the collective to change the world that Dr King foresaw. That although individually one might be poor or weak, together there was no force string enough to oppose peaceful demonstration. It is the basis of that contradiction from which his life and importance was built on: that through non-violence no force can withhold you.
The other luminous contradiction of the speech comes a few moments later:
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
A wonderful example of how contradiction in speech, and in language in general, can unlock a truth.
Furthermore “Dangerous Unselfishness” is also a powerful commentary on the life of Dr Martin Luther King.
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