He died earlier than he should have, but his life changed this nation, and the world, forever.
Preacher. Activist. Martyr. Liberator. Genius. Organizer. Humanitarian. Father. Husband. Human. Martin Luther King Jr. was all of those and then some.
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The charismatic world-changer was assassinated at just 39 years old on April 4, 1968. Having survived a stabbing attack, death threats, time in prison, and brutal threats and unethical surveillance from the FBI, King died with a heart that was in the state of a 60-year-old's.
But it's not King's death that should be remembered. It's the incredible life he led and how he shaped civil rights, activism, and what it's like to be black in modern America.
On the night before King's death, he gave what would be his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee. Clearly worn by years of fighting injustice at one of the most racist and violent times in American history, King gave a resounding speech to a crowd of more than 2,500 people about the burdensome but necessary fight toward quality and justice for all. The last two minutes of the 40-minute speech are utterly incredible.
In his last speech, King makes it clear that the journey to equality is still long but worth it. Below are some of the most memorable quotes from that April night that we can apply today.
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1. "It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity."
King spent his life preaching the benefit of working together instead of apart. He believed in the power of unity and peace in the face of injustice. King wanted black people to stick together and for humans to reach across the aisle to help one another.
2. "We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our non-violent movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do."
Police brutality has been a disturbing issue that has plagued black communities for years. Using tactics, such as tear gas, hosing down women and children, and training dogs to attack black people in peaceful protests, the relationship between police and black people has long been fraught. One must only look to the Birmingham civil rights protest of 1963 or the 1965 march on Selma to find examples of brutal treatment from police.
Still, King believed we could live above that. Brutality, murders, and ignorance wouldn't stop freedom. Our society could do better.
3. "Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. ... We aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on."
At one point in American history, African-Americans counted as three-fifths of a person. In spite of a Constitution that declared freedom for all men, Founding Fathers who claimed to believe in freedom for all men, and a country that framed itself as a place where anyone could catch their dreams, black people were exempt and often attacked for attempting to do so for years. King wasn't going to accept this.
The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Martin Luther King Jr. believed this statement should apply to black people, and he fought for that into his last days.
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4. "And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness."
King was many things, but one of his most prominent qualities was his giving nature and determination to fight for all. As such, his point about unselfishness, especially when it's inconvenient, is extremely indicative of his character and representative of how humanity can succeed today.
Activism isn't always clean, convenient, or comfortable. But it is necessary for true changes.
When we step into someone else's shoes or put someone's needs before our own, we create spaces that aren't just for us. We include and uplift everyone.
In the last few minutes of King's speech, it's almost as if King was aware of the inevitable death that awaited him.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," King said. "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!"
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King didn't promise that he'd never leave, but he did promise that the "promised land" — his version of "freedom" — was possible for all black people. But too often, King's words are misconstrued to only support peace and not radical protest (even if it made others uncomfortable) — an erasure of what he actually stood for.
We can better remember and honor King's life by listening to what he had to say, his support for radical societal changes that would create equality and freedom for black Americans.
While King himself may be gone, his work and ideology are pervasive in American life and activism today. As attacks mount against black people, Muslims, immigrant communities, and LGBTQ communities across the nation, King's dedication to peace, belief in a world that is fair to everyone, and unwavering support of being better together than we are apart is more relevant to the American dream than ever.
Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" was his final public speech. You can listen to the full speech below and read the transcript here.