Decades after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, we still recall the fateful words of his last public speech the day before.
Delivered in Memphis, Tenn. in support of striking sanitation workers there, his address is popularly known as “The Mountaintop Speech” for these famous closing lines: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop….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 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.”
They’re unforgettable — the final, soaring, prophetic words of a leader who seemed to know his hours were numbered. Yet if you listen to the entire speech, what comes through is a call to action in support of organized labor, buttressed by rhetoric that ranges from scripture to statistics to personal anecdotes to complaints that ring true nearly half a century later.
Even the more prosaic elements of his last public speech are enlightening. For instance, did you know that in “The Mountaintop Speech,” Dr. King:
Recounted the time a woman stabbed him during a book tour stop in New York City.
“…while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, ‘Are you Martin Luther King?’… the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery… It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died.”
Cited Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. – and paused to ask him a question mid-speech.
“We are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis…Tell them not to buy—what is the other bread?—Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain.”
Complained about the press.
“You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them…They didn’t get around to that.”
Rattled off stats on the size of Black buying power.
“The Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.”
Stressed the need to support Black-owned businesses.
“We’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank—we want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis… We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”
To read “The Mountaintop Speech” in its entirety, go to the AFSCME site.