Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, 45 years ago, on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray was eventually tried and convicted for this crime. Dr. King was a master orator and electrified audiences when he spoke, and on this anniversary we’d like to celebrate him and revisit some of his speeches. Dr. King was in Memphis throughout the early months of 1968 in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers were killed on the job sparking outrage which led to a boycott and a strike in an attempt to gain better working conditions and respect for the workers. The clip above is from the documentary, I Am A Man: Dr. King & the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and gives some important background for the strike and Dr. King’s activism and efforts to help the workers.
The Film & Media Archive holds several interviews Blackside conducted with many of Martin Luther King’s associates, friends, and family members for the series Eyes on the Prize II, including Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, who was with King when he died and spoke about that in his interview, William Lucy, one of the strike organizers in Memphis, Jerred Blanchard, a city council member who sided with the strikers, Marian Logan, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) member and associate of Dr. King, Andrew Young, also an SCLC member, and many others. The episode, The Promised Land (1967-1968) covered the last year of Dr. King’s life and many of the interviews talk about his time in Memphis. Together these interviews and the stock footage Blackside gathered form a striking, multifaceted portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and activism.
In Andrew Young’s interview he describes the moments right before Dr. King was shot,
We got the injunction thrown out, and we got our permission to march, and I guess about 4:30 or 5:00, I came back to the Lorraine Motel and I found Martin and A.D., and Ralph, and everybody gathered there, and they’d been eating, and, and had lunch, and were talking and clowning, and when I came in, Martin just grabbed me and threw me down on the bed, and started beating me with a pillow. I mean, he was, he was like a big kid. He was fussing because I hadn’t reported to him, and I tried to tell him, “I was on the witness stand, I’m here in the Federal Court.” And he was just standing on the bed swinging the pillow at me. I’m trying to duck with him saying, “You have to let me know what’s going on.” You know, and finally I snatched the pillow and started swinging back and it, you know, and everybody, it was sort of like the, the, you know, touchdown, and everybody piles on everybody. It wa–it was just, I mean, people just started throwing pillows and piling on top of everybody, and laughing and, and going on and then, he stopped and, and said, “Let’s go.” You know we’d do a dinner at six, it was at that time about six o’clock. And he went on up to his room to, you know, to put on a shirt and tie. I went out in the court-yard, waiting for him and started shadow-boxing with James Orange who is about, you know, 6’5″ and 280 pounds, so it was mostly continuing the clowning around atmosphere. I mean James could slap me in the ground with his little finger, but I was, you know, clowning around with him. And Martin came out and asked “You think I need a coat?” and we said, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, and you’ve had a cold, you better go back and get a coat.” And he said, “I don’t know whether or not I need coat,” and you know, the next thing we know, a shot. Well I thought it was a car backfiring, or a firecracker, and I looked up and didn’t see him. And I frankly thought that it was a car that backfired and he was still clowning, because he was always given to clowning particularly in those kinds of–when we’d been very, very well down, and then all of a sudden, you know things look like they’re going to work out, he could get very giddy almost.
—Interview with Andrew Young, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 27, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
This clip contains what has become known as the “Mountain Top” speech.
Martin Luther King gave this speech on April 3, 1968, the day before he died. In this extraordinary speech King speaks about why he is in Memphis but also ranges over many topics including a list of things he has seen during his campaign for civil rights near the end of the speech. He recounts the major campaigns and triumphs in Montgomery, Selma, and the “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington. The speech is also philosophical and has both biblical and historical references intertwined throughout.
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.
The speech ends with another biblical allusion although the figure of Moses is not named, King draws a parallel between himself and the prophet which proved heartbreaking and prophetic. Although a careful reader, or listener, of the speech will find references to violence and threats against King’s life dropped almost casually into the speech, from the attempt on his life when he was stabbed by a mentally ill woman to that morning’s flight to Memphis where the flight was delayed because the plane had to be checked for bombs and explosives. The fact is Dr. King lived under the threat of violence and had for some time by April 3, 1968 when he gave this speech. Knowing this does not lessen the shock or power of the last lines,
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to 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.
For further reading, the King Papers Project at Stanford University has a comprehensive list of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches with transcripts and audio (when available).