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King's Oratory of Nonviolence Moved a Nation

Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the best-known champion -- and martyr -- of the nation's Civil Rights Movement. He was assassinated in April 1968, shortly after leading a march seeking better pay for garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He is thought by some to have foretold his own death in the famous "I've been to the mountaintop" speech before those sanitation workers.

"Martin Luther King really does let us know that he has led this community to a place where they should be able to go the rest of the way," says Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "He's tired when he gives this speech. And so the stresses in his life, the threats against his life, come out in a way that he doesn't normally share. You get a weariness. You get a belief that he may not be with us, but that he knows black Americans will get to the Promised Land."

"I left Atlanta this morning," Dr. King recounted to his Memphis audience. "And as we got started, the pilot said, 'We're sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully.' And then I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that were out -- 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. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

The applause builds steadily as he 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. 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. 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!"

"In this, what I think is one of the most moving speeches ever in American history," Lonnie Bunch comments, "King basically says that the promise of American life is close by for the black community. He knows that people's commitment to change is going to get the black community to the Promised Land."

This is one of a series of reports on Say it Plain, a collection of excerpts from 32 memorable speeches by notable African-Americans.