Little more than two months later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Dr. King has become something like a rock band where people know their greatest hits, but don't pay attention to the deep cuts.* "I have a dream" and "Free at last, free at last" and a few other select passages have been overplayed to the point of becoming clichés. But every once in a while I will hear something else by Dr. King, something that reminds me that he was one hell of a preacher.
The other day I heard something that reminded me that he also had a sense of humor and the absurd. This was from an NPR report on Dr. King's final speech, and recounted an incident that, if I have heard of, I have forgotten:
Dr. King's final speech is well-remembered for his "I've been to the mountaintop" statement, which echoed the story of Moses, who, after leading the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years to reach the Promised Land, is allowed only to see it from afar, but not to live to enter it himself:
In 1958, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman while autographing copies of his first book in a Harlem department store. The tip of the blade came so close to his aorta that his doctor said a sneeze would have killed King. While he was recovering, King received a letter from a teenage girl, who wrote, "I'm so glad you didn't sneeze."
Ten years later, in the speech at the Mason Temple, King took up that theme, saying if he had sneezed, he would not have been around in 1960, when students began sitting-in at lunch counters, or in subsequent years to see the freedom riders, the march in Selma and other key events in the civil rights movement.
"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. 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."But that wasn't the entire speech. No, earlier he had a section that recounted that young girl's letter, and launched what could be called the "If I Had Sneezed" speech (audible at 3:17 in the NPR piece). The cadence so closely resembles his "I Have a Dream"speech that I do not think it was coincidental. It is at once moving and preposterous, focusing on how something as small as a sneeze - in the presence of a letter opener in the chest - could change the events of history.
"...If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963 when black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights deal. 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..."Dr. King didn't sneeze that day in 1958. He lived and led and marched and dreamed and spoke. And ten years after that day when a sneeze could have meant the difference between life and death for him, Dr. King stepped out onto a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and into the gun sight of James Earl Ray. In that moment the Civil Rights leader became a Civil Rights martyr. Forty years ago today.
* Once many years ago I was working the night shift and the radio - we still had music played for us back then - was playing an extended blues jam. The woman singing had a voice that reached deep into your soul, tore out your heart, and lifted it up high. I know three or four songs by Janis Joplin, but I never knew what a fantastic blues singer she was.