Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He was born January 15, 1929. If he lived, he would have turned seventy-nine years old. In the early 1960s, King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, where police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods were used against Southern blacks seeking the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter. After passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights,” including economic rights. [includes rush transcript]
Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.
By 1967, King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” and the Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
We turn now to that speech that King gave in April 1967.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967.
For more of King’s speeches check: Pacifica Radio Archives.
King gave his speech “Beyond Vietnam” a year to the day before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. On the day of King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis, Indiana campaigning for president. He announced the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.
- Sen. Robert Kennedy, speaking in Indianapolis, IN, April 4, 1968.
For more of King’s speeches check: Pacifica Radio Archives.
The night before he was killed, King gave his last major address in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking sanitation workers as he built momentum for a Poor Peoples March on Washington.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968.
For more of King’s speeches check: Pacifica Radio Archives.
AMY GOODMAN: Today is Martin Luther King Day. He was born January 15, 1929, assassinated April 4, 1968. In the early 1960s, Dr. King challenged legalized racial discrimination in the South where police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods were used against Southern blacks seeking the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter or just being.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained civil rights laws were empty without “human rights,” including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, Dr. King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow. Noting a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, Dr. King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between the rich and poor and called for radical changes in the structure of our society to redistribute wealth and power.
By 1967, Dr. King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, a staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year-to-the-day before he was assassinated, Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post declared the speech and King “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” Today, we play an excerpt of that speech. It’s called “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered April 4, 1967.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote: “Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one, end all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two, declare a unilateral ceasefire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three, take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
Four, realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
Five, set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under the new regime, which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country, if necessary.
Meanwhile —- meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task: While we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment, we must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors.
These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
Now, there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing clergy— and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past 10 years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression, which has now justified the presence of U.S. military “advisers” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago, he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin — we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, explaining why he opposed the war in Vietnam. We’ll come back to this speech and then play another. Today, Dr. Martin Luther King, in his own words. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now, let us begin. Now, let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
- Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, explaining why he opposed the war in Vietnam, the speech delivered exactly a year before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. On that day, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis, Indiana, campaigning for president. He announced the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King there.
ROBERT KENNEDY: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis.
AMY GOODMAN: The night before Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, he gave his last major address in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking sanitation workers as he built momentum for a Poor Peoples March on Washington. This is an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have Been to the Mountain Top.”
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through — or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire, and I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863 and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early ’30s and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation and come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But I wouldn’t stop there.
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.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free!”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, 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. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said, so often scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — we are saying that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. We’ll come back to this speech in Memphis, Tennessee in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Dr. King’s speech the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs, and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses, and we would look at it. And we’d just go on singing, “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did. And we would just go on in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to, and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.
Now, let me say, as I move to my conclusion, that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Now, that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air and placed it on the dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou” and to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather, to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles — or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, 15 or 20 minutes later, you’re about 2,200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight, not: “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” not: “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not: “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is: “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. 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’re 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. 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, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters 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 that 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.” And she said, “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.”
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze, because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed — if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when 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, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
And they were telling me — now, it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. 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 on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully, and we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats or talk about the threats that were out, of what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. 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! And so 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!
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King, April 3, 1968, assassinated the next day in Memphis, Tennessee.