April 3, 1968
It was on a September day about ten years before he was to die on a balcony outside his Memphis motel room. The night before he died he spoke at the Mason Temple church where he was preparing a march in support of striking sanitation workers. The speech that night is best known for the line in which King tells his audience that there is more to life than longevity and that happiness is derived as much in the struggle as it is in any victory:
“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.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN
In the King canon, these words were so prophetic that it made us wonder whether what he saw as he looked past that evening’s sermon was a premonition of his death.
In that speech, given on April 3, 1968, King recounted his first encounter with death— a day in September 1958— ten years earlier at a book signing in a Harlem department store. Dr. King was 29 years old and had written his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. With all the success and drama of King’s latter years as leader of the Civil Rights movement, it is sometimes forgotten that his rise as a proponent of non-violence was almost cut short by a most violent act. King was stabbed by a mentally ill daughter of sharecroppers, Izola Ware Curry, who asked before she plunged her knife into the young preacher’s chest, “Are you Martin Luther King?” :
The stabbing nearly cost Dr. King his life, requiring hours of delicate surgery to remove Ms. Curry’s blade, a seven-inch ivory-handled steel letter opener, which had lodged near his heart. If he had so much as sneezed, his doctors later told him, he would not have survived.
—NYTimes, March 21, 2015, “Izola Ware Curry, Who Stabbed King in 1958, Dies at 98” by Margalit Fox
On that night before he was assassinated in Memphis, King mentioned the incident in his speech. He recalled a letter from a ninth-grade white teen who wrote him while he recovered from the surgery that saved his life and, perhaps, the movement. King’s mind that evening was focused on the moment at hand and the dangers it presented. This was, perhaps, his peek past that night and an acknowledgment— an acceptance of his fate:
“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…
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.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN
On this day, nearly 55 years after his death, it is time, again, to remember the impact his life has had on the world. Dr. King was as much a leader during his brief time on earth as the presidents and legislators of his era. Unlike them, he was not afforded the luxury of an office or the power of government. He was an ambassador for peace and justice.
Dr. King born in 1929 was educated in segregated schools of the time. From his earliest years, King, born the son of a Baptist minister, was a prodigy. He entered Morehouse College at the age of 15 after skipping grades 9 and 12. He received a doctorate in Theology at age 26 and was plunged into the Civil Rights movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955— a boycott begun with Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus. His mother, Alberta King, lived to witness the death of her son only to be the target of the attack that was carried out by a black man, who like Izola Ware Curry, seemed crazed. She was murdered in 1974 as her husband was officiating at Sunday services and she sat at the organ playing a verse of “The Lord’s Prayer.” She and two other church members died that day.
King’s commitment to non-violence and change was rooted in his ministry as the leader of the powerless and the oppressed. He marched for freedom on the streets of an America still awash in self-satisfied hypocrisies, the greatest of which was its belief that the freedom it promised at its founding had pronounced limitations. The corrosiveness of privilege evidenced by founders like Jefferson and Washington who signed on to the promise of freedom in the Declaration of Independence while holding captive slaves was fundamental to Dr. King’s sacrifice and made his movement inevitable.
then and now
As we recall his life on the national holiday named in his honor, we are reminded that life is precious and we tend to take it for granted. The mountaintop is always there, closer than we know. King’s journey was not his alone. When the history of mankind is finally written, his words and his willingness to sacrifice will serve as a touchstone. He understood that in order for evil and injustice to prevail all that is required is our indifference— our fear of engagement. He chose to act.
On the night before he died, King talked about his journey and if he could choose a moment in time to live, it would be then:
“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.
— April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN
Luckily, Dr. King didn’t sneeze that day in Harlem. He was undeterred by the violence that he knew awaited his movement— the hatred that his enemies would allow to fester. Today, a half-century beyond, we face a world in crisis and an opportunity to make it better. Our nation is still “sick” and its source lingers as racism and its attendant injustice infect our nation. Lesser men still work to defer the dream Dr. King so eloquently described and worked toward. It is a dream that keeps them awake at night, one they refuse to share.
Dr. King recognized that a lifetime is never enough to complete a life’s work. The trick is to pass on the vision, hand off the dream.