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‘This is King at his best, at the height of his powers’: Remembering MLK’s last speech

Ailyn Aguasbivas, 9, with the James J. Chittick Elementary School All Star Choir, sang a solo during the readings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech at Boston City Hall Plaza.
Ailyn Aguasbivas, 9, with the James J. Chittick Elementary School All Star Choir, sang a solo during the readings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech at Boston City Hall Plaza. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech, a stirring cry for economic justice tinged with almost a prophetic knowledge that he would not live long.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now,” King said in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. “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.”

King was assassinated the next day — April 4, 1968.

On Monday in Boston, hundreds gathered in City Hall Plaza to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s final speech, a poignant ceremony that included readings from young children.

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The event, sponsored by the Boston Mountaintop Coalition, marked a “tremendous opportunity for Bostonians to come together around the values of social justice, equity, fairness for all,” said Kevin Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition and an organizer of the event.

“This speech is an expression of Dr. King at his most mature,” Peterson said. “This was a radical King that talks about social justice ... this is King at his best, at the height of his powers.”

Evelyn Johnson, 75, of Dorchester, said King “opened up a lot of roads, a lot of paths, for a lot of people.”

Honoring King through his own words paid homage to his enduring legacy, she said.

“They’re not letting his language go,” she said. “They’re keeping it up.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the diversity of the crowd — both racial and economic — was testimony to King’s impact.

“Look around here today, look at the faces that are on the plaza, look at the mixture of people from different backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, different clergy, different elected officials — what he set out to do 50 years ago is working in our city,” Walsh said. “This is the face of Boston, this is the face that Dr. King spoke about.”

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Raymond Flynn, the former Boston mayor, recalled meeting King once in Mattapan, and praised his message of nonviolence.

“He proved to the world that you could be effective, make an impact, have a profound influence in the culture of America, and at the same time advocate for peace and justice,” he said. “That’s what I think this world so desperately needs — a voice for peace and justice.”

William Gross, Superintendent-in-chief for the Boston Police Department, said he hopes King’s words remain a guiding force.

“It is instrumental that we still live by those words,” he said. “If people didn’t exercise their First Amendment rights to protest, I wouldn’t be here as the first African-American chief, and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King led the way.”

King studied in Boston in the early 1950s, and the city became his “second home,” Gross added.

”He never forgot us,” Gross said. “You see all the protests that’s going on in the Boston Common ... I think that’s in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, sending the message that racial inequality, prejudice, injustices won’t be tolerated.”

Former city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson said he hoped King’s Boston ties inspire others to carry on his legacy.

“He walked here, he lived here, and I think it’s so critical for our young people to understand that we’re literally walking in his footsteps,” he said.

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In his speech, King spoke of the vast economic disparity between whites and blacks, a gulf that persists today, Jackson said.

“In a city that a white family is worth $247,500 and a black family is worth $8, we have to have that conversation,” he said.

Children who read King’s speech came from across the Boston area. Destiny Hartgrove, a 9-year-old from Randolph, was chosen because she often speaks before her church. Even though it was a big crowd, she wasn’t nervous. She had her church friends there with her, she said.

“Dr. Martin Luther King is the best man around because he helped civil rights,” she said. “He’s a really cool man.”

Tony Wilson, a James Brown impersonator, helped teach members of the James J. Chittick Elementary School choir how to do the moon walk after the ceremony.
Tony Wilson, a James Brown impersonator, helped teach members of the James J. Chittick Elementary School choir how to do the moon walk after the ceremony. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Aimee Ortiz can be reached at aimee.ortiz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @aimee_ortiz.