April 3, 1968


“Mine eeeeyyyyyyyeeeeeessssss have seen the glor-y of the comin’ of the Lord!!!!!”

Martin Luther King Jr slumped into a chair and the waiting arms of his friends after having shouted this line in the last speech of his life.

The anniversary of the date is this month of my posting on my website.

April 3, 1968. Inside a local church, the Mason Temple, in Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr gives the most stirring speech of his life.

(exterior of Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee)

I’d like to work with you and focus on this speech. If you want to hear it, do a web-search on Youtube with the words “Martin Luther King been to the mountaintop. The full speech is forty-three minutes. I recommend you listen to the eight-minute version.

King had spent this day in a series of meetings. The occasion at which he spoke was, in essence, his fourth meeting of the day. The difference was that the audience regarded him as the keynote speaker of this meeting. (As an aside, I have a leadership development module entitled “A Day of Meetings: Purpose, Leadership, and the Last Day of Martin Luther King Jr’s Life)

The role of keynote speaker was the last thing that King wanted. He had to be pushed, pulled, and prodded into going to this event in the first place. He was exhausted by the day’s interactions, with few positive results for his efforts. He wanted to relax in his motel room, get to bed early. King didn’t want to drive half-way across town under a sky of thunderstorms and potential tornadoes and then have the burden of speaking to an expectant crowd. King hoped to be left alone, not to stand up and make a speech.

But he relented to the demands of his friends and colleagues. So he went. He sat in a chair behind the podium and in front of the crowd. He got up at the signal that it was his turn to speak.

You and I should take a moment and learn from the speech. Who knows—you may be called on to give a speech sometime soon and it’s not a bad idea to have a few of Martin Luther King Jr’s techniques at the ready. So in no particular order, let’s take a quick look. And remember, King’s speech was not planned, not written down. He spoke extemporaneously.

First, King relied on stories familiar to him from the Bible. He was a practicing Christian and an experienced Christian minister. He drew from both the Bible and his years of sermonizing to re-use stories that he’d used dozens of times before.

Second, King relied on stories familiar to him from his life. Whether recent or relatively long ago, King inserted personal anecdotes that helped illustrate whatever point he was trying to make. Each anecdote had happened to him. Thus, he could speak about them with sincerity, genuineness, and authenticity.

Third, within these sets of stories King deployed specific tools of oratory and speech-making. He used contrasts (big/little; famous/not famous at all; and so on). He used the same phrase to introduce a string of statements (similar to his “I have a dream…” speech). He used a brief summary of key events to unify everyone listening to him, to help make sense of how they’d come to where they were that night. And he altered the pacing of his speech pattern in both tone and speed. He indirectly referred to hidden meaning, invoking Moses and Moses’s fate as a prophet. Christians in the audience would likely have understood the reference without having it explained.

But for the purposes of history—history is the partial construction of the total past—we remember the final line of the speech. That is the line that will live for years to come.

It’s hard not to think that something in King, perhaps his Christian faith, whispered to him that, as Paul said, time is short. The irony of having shouted this sentence less than twenty-four hours before his murder is shocking. He’d been the target of death threats and assassination plots for the past several years. He spoke openly of his fear. But in this last sentence of the last speech you can’t help but sense a more fundamental level of realization. It’s as if the blood running through his veins knows it will soon spill out.

Not all prophecies need to be about great movements and masses of people.

There was also the habit of King’s when at particular instances in his speeches, he simply went to what his friends called “a different place.” It was improvisation tied to inspiration. Even with written remarks in front of him King might launch into his own direction of speaking. He would glide on an invisible carpet of momentum that he had started but which his listeners quickly supplemented with their own cheering, clapping, and shouting.

This concluding sentence on a chilly April night was perhaps the most airborne of his life.

Anguish can be heard in the last sentence. With King’s identity as a Christian, it’s easy to imagine him imagining himself—as Moses standing in pain and looking over the river to the promised land that he’ll never enter, as Jesus hanging on the cross and crying up to God in heaven. The emotion stretching across the sentence, especially in the word “eyes,” must reflect his inner turmoil at an end that he knows, suspects, fears, is coming soon.

A final point. The emotional power of the last sentence can obstruct our awareness of the origins of King’s reference. The line he delivers is in fact the first line from the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe in late 1861, the opening year of the Civil War. The Civil War was both a storm and a rainbow in King’s life, hanging over much of what he did, wrote, and said. Howe’s song was probably one of the two most enduring musical numbers of the Civil War; “Dixie” was the other. An irony here is that the melody of the song was from an earlier piece about another American who fought and died over black rights, John Brown.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month….” So it is as we look back  forty-three years to the sad date of April 3, 1968 and the night of Martin Luther King Jr’s final speech.