The name Martin Luther King Junior evokes feelings of strength, courage, and truth. It carries the legacy of a man who dedicated his life to upholding justice, equality, and liberty for all. His famous works such as the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech are known for their powerful and convicting personalities. However, King’s last speech is one that is rarely discussed, yet perhaps the most important one.
King was on the balcony of the motel where he was staying, about to head to dinner, but was shot and killed moments after this picture was taken. Many believe that his last speech prophesied this tragic event. Even though most Americans are only familiar with the last 60 seconds of this speech where he triumphantly declares, “I’ve been to the mountain top,” it’s the entirety of his speech that holds the real message he wanted to leave us with. It is a contemplative and reflective look upon his own life; a beautiful demonstration of the power of the Gospel complimented by fervent commandments to carry on the fight for justice.
King begins his speech by examining the perspectives through which he was able to experience life. He reveals his desire to understand the past through a hypothetical journey he takes over the course of human history. Perhaps he understood the importance of learning from the past in order the solve the problems the world faces today.
“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.'”
King speaks as though he might not be able to see the second half of the twentieth century for himself. This attitude sets the mood for the rest of his speech and leads him to pour out all kinds of wisdom, admonition, and even practical steps that could pave the way to freedom for his people. For instance, instead of riots and violent protests, he urges his listeners to use economic pressure by boycotting businesses. This, he believes, is a nonviolent way to be heard and bring about true change.
King also highlights that everything that is evil, namely racism, is a heart issue. It is due to a “sickness” that cannot be remedied by force but by perseverance, kindness, and justice. He stresses that the promise of eternal life in Christ is not an excuse to idly stand by as injustice runs rampant. He candidly states, “It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” King cared about what God cared and still cares about and recognized that true change is not possible without meeting the needs of the poor and forgotten, so that they, too, can fight for what is right.
“And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel.”
What we can learn from all that King has said in his last speech would be too long to list, but perhaps the most important lesson is that “the issue is injustice.” His passion and unabashed forthrightness should not only inspire us but move us to fight the injustices we see in our world today. We ought to honor his words by speaking up for the voiceless and shining the light of the Gospel in this dark world. Developing “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” is essential to accomplishing this task and commencing a movement that creates a ripple effect throughout history—a movement that secures a brighter future. May we live our lives to make sure we did our part for the good of this world.
This is what King said about his life when he knew it was nearing its end, will we dare say something similar?
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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. And 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.”