One of the things that made the biggest impression on me at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was a short film that plays in the theater just inside the museum’s entrance. The film takes the visitor back to the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death — the night he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. April 3, 1968 was a dismal, stormy night in Memphis, but despite the weather, the church where Dr. King was speaking was packed.
Death was on Dr. King’s mind. The wind rattled the windows and doors of the church eerily as he spoke:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,
Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.
And she said,
While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
Because Dr. King didn’t sneeze, he was in Memphis that night, showing his support to the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike. Two months before, 2 sanitation workers had been crushed to death on the job. It was raining heavily and they had tried to take shelter in their truck, but its compactor mechanism accidentally went off, killing them. On the day of their deaths, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay because of the bad weather — while their white supervisors were paid for the day’s work. Those events pushed the overworked, underpaid sanitation workers — young and old black men who “worked like dogs” (one man remembers his starting salary as $1.03 an hour) — to go on strike.
Dr. King didn’t sneeze, but on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine motel anyway. He did not live to see the end of the sanitation workers’ fight in Memphis, but on the Monday after her husband’s death Coretta Scott King led the march he’d planned to attend. The workers’ demands were simple: Bargaining rights and better wages. Their slogan was even simpler: “I AM A MAN.” More than 40 years later, it seems hard to imagine a more eloquent rallying cry — or starkly poetic cause — for Dr. King’s last battle.
photo by me: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis