Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

When my older son was three, in the dark night of Reaganomics, I took him to the 20th anniversary rally commemorating the 1963 March on Washington. On the fringes, a vendor was selling tapes of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years my son listened to them over and over again. My son's favorite was Dr. King's emphatic, gospel preacher's "If I had sneezed ..." litany, which we heard repeated in a child's voice at the dinner table often, as excerpted below.

And I want to thank God, once more,
for allowing me to be here with you.

Audience: Yes sir

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."

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.

Yes sir

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.

Yes

But there was another letter

All right

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."
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."

Yes [applause]

And I want to say tonight,

[applause]

I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn't sneeze.
Because if I had sneezed,

All right

I wouldn't have been around here in 1960,

Well

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

Yes sir

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,

Yes

I wouldn't have been around here in 1961,
when we decided to take a ride for freedom
and ended segregation in interstate travel.

All right

If I had sneezed,

Yes

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,

[applause]

if I had sneezed,
I wouldn't have been here in 1963,

All right

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.

Yes

If I had sneezed,

applause

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.

Yes

I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.

And they were telling me.

[applause]

Now it doesn't matter now.

Go ahead

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,

Yeah

or 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.

Amen

But it really doesn't matter with me now,
because I've been to the mountaintop.

Yeah [applause]

And I don't mind.

[applause continues]

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.

Yeah

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.

Go ahead

And I've looked over,

Yes sir

and I've seen the Promised Land.

Go ahead

I may not get there with you.

Go ahead

But I want you to know tonight,

Yes

that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

[applause] Go ahead. Go ahead.

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!

-- Delivered 3 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee.
This turned out to be Dr. King's last full-fledged speech.
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