Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech is one that many people think they know, but not many actually do.
Delivered in Memphis the night before he died — 50 years ago next week — it is the one in which he eerily foretold his own death, which would occur the next day, when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place,” he said. “But I’m not concerned about that now.
“I may not get there with you,” he continued. “But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
That powerful and prophetic ending followed a lengthy appeal for economic justice. King was in town to rally support for striking sanitation workers. His nonviolent crusade, begun as a fight against segregation, had broadened to embrace other social issues, including economic inequality and an end to the Vietnam War.
Next Monday, King’s last great speech will be re-created in a program on City Hall Plaza. Dozens of speakers will each deliver short sections of it. While a snippet of the speech is well known, most people have never heard the whole thing. Organizers say the speech continues to resonate years later, reflecting passions that remain contemporary.
In it, he calls on listeners to use their economic power to force change, by boycotting companies such as Coca-Cola and depositing their savings in black-owned banks.
“It has so much contemporary relevance in terms of addressing issues of social justice that are relevant today,” said Kevin Peterson, director of Boston Mountaintop, which is organizing the reading. “The speech could have been delivered last night instead of 50 years ago, The issues of race, environment, and economic inequality still resonate in astounding ways.”
He said the speakers were chosen to reflect a cross section of the city. Every neighborhood is represented, as well as every conceivable demographic. The youngest scheduled speaker is 5 years old. The oldest is 91 — the great Rev. Michael Haynes, who was King’s closest associate in Boston.
King is enjoying a renaissance in Boston, the city where he earned a doctorate and met his wife, Coretta Scott King. Aside from the commemoration of his death, the city is also in the midst of planning a memorial to him and his wife, with community meetings taking place across neighborhoods to debate where it should go. This is all recent activity in a city that had never quite appreciated King’s significant ties here.
It makes sense though, because King’s time in Boston was formative. It was in Boston, under the tutelage of Howard Thurman, that he embraced the philosophy of nonviolence.
“Boston is a place where he grows intellectually and spiritually into the man that he becomes, the preacher that he becomes,” Peterson said.
King’s journey took him back to the South, of course, but he maintained a connection to Boston. In 1965 he led his only march here, before addressing a joint session of the Legislature.
By that time, King’s outlook was evolving; one might say he had developed a broader lens. His passion for racial justice had grown into a critique of other forms of injustice. This evolution was not universally lauded. His break with President Lyndon B. Johnson on Vietnam alienated some who felt that Johnson had been one of the few white politicians to expend real political capital to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But King has been vindicated over time. The notion that civil rights cannot be divorced from broader concerns is barely even debated today. What once was controversial now seems prophetic. So it makes sense that his last speeches are being rediscovered.
And Boston — a city never closely associated with the civil rights movement — is joining in the celebration. Unlikely as it once would have seemed, this city is now claiming Martin Luther King Jr. as a native son.