It was Wednesday night: April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. He was doing more than making a speech. Over the course of his hour-and-a-half at the microphone, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized his life story aloud. While standing there, he offered up a spontaneous act of autobiographical testimony. In his capacious and far-reaching remarks, he shifted focus continually between the history of humanity’s quest for freedom, the national drama of the contemporary civil rights crusade, and his own personal quest “to do God’s will.” In the course of creating this seemingly impromptu speech, King synthesized themes and concerns and issues and priorities that had preoccupied him all his life.
He also prophesied his own death. But first King effortlessly transitioned into a decade-old true-life story, which many in the audience surely recalled—there had been plentiful UPI file photos of his hospitalization and his recovery.
“I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written,” King recalled, a faraway look in his eyes as he recounted this brush with death. “And while sitting there autographing books, a demented 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. 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, you drown in your own blood—that’s the end of you.
Younger audience members heard this story now for the very first time.
It came out in The New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White 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.”
The Mason Temple audience erupted with applause, cheers and a joyful wail.
Then something peculiar happened. It was discernible in his tone. And for those who could really see the look in his eyes, it was obvious. A note of resignation suddenly filled the air, as King repeated: “ … it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now.”
That fatalistic remark clashed with the hopeful stride of earlier sentences. Suddenly his mournful expression dovetailed with an admission of the latest death threat against him. It was just that morning, he explained to his stunned congregation:
I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane … the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
Now the crowd was expectant.
“And then I got into Memphis,” King continued. “And some began to talk … about the threats that were out. What would happen to me …” (here he paused looking grief-stricken and forlorn) … “from some of our sick white brothers?” MLK was silent now.
His virtuosic delivery had been beyond category. He had whispered various phrases, then boomed out passages with impassioned spontaneity. Suddenly, as he launched into his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop!” finale, the crowd just as quickly turned exultant. Their shouts and wails and cheers ricocheted throughout the auditorium. And after King declaimed that “I may not get there with you—but WE, as a People, will GET to the Promised Land!” an ovation was already underway. MLK finished by predicting his own demise.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
King was pausing after each sentence. This tactic was not rhetorical; it was revelatory. The tone of his voice was somber yet triumphant; the look in his eyes spoke volumes—here was a man who seemed to be looking into the eyes of his Creator. He did not flinch.
“And I don’t mind! Like anybody … I would like to live a long life. Lo-ng-ev-ity …” That one word–“Longevity …”—was given a profound inflection; MLK bent the word into a four-syllable whole note that sustained its sonorous tension until he quickly added: “Longevity … has its place!” Then that look in his eyes again arrested the attention of those most carefully observing him: King looked both frightened and fiercely confident. “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’m happy tonight!”
His audience now cried out, shouted out, praising him.
“I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man!” King then concluded with the capstone line from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” It was then he nearly fainted.
Ralph Abernathy was the first to embrace King. It was more than a hug of congratulation that Abernathy offered; he held MLK in such a way that it could be seen by all who had a view of the row of chairs behind the podium.
Having turned at the lectern and walked a few steps to where he had earlier been sitting, MLK nearly collapsed after finishing his speech. Abernathy held him up for a few moments, before King finally settled back into his chair to regain his composure. The torrent of applause and the relentless cheering were still generating a transcendent cacophony inside the hall. Many years later, in various memoirs written by Abernathy and those who were also on stage that night (Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and others), their unanimous consensus was stated again and again. This encounter had transported both King and his listeners in a way that was ineffable. Those there to hear it often claimed that the experience was far more moving than even King’s fabled “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963. Abernathy was adamant about this in his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, in which he wrote:
I had heard him hit high notes before, but never any higher. The crowd was on its feet, shouting and applauding—even some of the television crew. It was a rare moment in the history of American oratory, something to file along with Washington’s Farewell Address and the Gettysburg Address. But it was somehow different than those speeches because it was an eloquence that grew out of the black experience, with its similarities to the biblical story of captivity and hard-won freedom. Everyone was emotionally drained by what he had said, including Martin himself, whose eyes were filled with tears.
Watch a video excerpt of Dr. King’s speech on April 3, 1968 on YouTube here.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in October by Heliotrope Books.)