Hold Fast To The Dream

A Presentation for Two Readers and Choir

of the Life and Words, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The author gratefully acknowledges the help and advice of Joe Bradley, Tinker Monroe, Laura Delaplain, Erma LaPierre, René LaPierre, and Beverly Latif Duncan for their work in either presenting or critiquing earlier drafts of this manuscript, and the adult choirs of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls and the United Church of Christ in Abington, Massachusetts for their roles in its first performances.

Introductory Notes

“Hold Fast to the Dream” was first written for a Sunday morning service of worship, perhaps taking the place of the Sermon. Later it was expanded to make it adaptable for a longer presentation of the type that might be used as an afternoon or evening event in which the music and readings comprised the entire program. For example, the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is often the same Sunday as Martin Luther King Sunday, and would be a good occasion for a presentation such as this. The expanded portions are set off by double lines. When doing the short form, simply skip those sections. In the expanded form, add them.

A word on music. Many of the hymns suggested in “Hold Fast to the Dream” can be found in various hymnals and other collections. Most are in public domain and will be free. One fine collection that contains all of the music here is Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, by Guy and Candie Carawan (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corporation, 1990). However, before using music from this or any other collection in a public presentation of “Hold Fast to the Dream,” you should first contact the publishers for permission. Normally there will be little difficulty gaining permission to use their work. But, if for some reason you are unable to attain the music or apply for permission, the song, “We Shall Over Come” can be nicely substituted throughout with little loss to the overall program. In this text, both “We Shall Over Come” and a second option (which can be found in Sing For Freedom and other collections) are always given whenever a piece of music is suggested.

Note that preceding each of the readings, there is a heading which usually contains a title, date, and place of its delivery. For most of the readings, these headings are for the benefit of the readers only. The context usually introduces the reading adequately. One exception is the excerpt from the proclamation for Martin Luther King day at the end. This is not introduced in the text and will be confusing without the title given. However, the titles can also be useful if a particular reading is taken out of this presentation and used separately in another occasion as a smaller individual reading.

It should also be noted that the proclamation at the very end has troubled some people who have participated in this presentation. The president who said these words was Ronald Reagan, who frequently opposed King's work philosophically and also opposed the founding of “Martin Luther King Day,” for which these words were written. Some, therefore, have felt it hypocritical to use his words to honor Rev. King. To be sensitive to that criticism, here are three options. First, in this version we have introduced the proclamation by saying (truthfully) that these words were written, not by the president, but for him to read (by speech writer Peggy Noonan), and the name of the president is not mentioned. A second option is to simply end with the last words of King to Abernathy as he lay dying. The dramatic conclusion is a good ending by itself. Finally, if anyone in your troupe is creative, feel free to write a conclusion of your own with our blessing.

Early Years


On one very cold and very cloudy Saturday morning, January 15, 1929, just three months after the beginning of the worst economic depression in the history of the United States, Alberta Williams King and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., gave birth to their first child.
They named him Martin, after his father, and he would grow up to make it one of the most famous names in all of American history. Little Martin Luther King Jr. would, in his lifetime, change the way people understood democracy, religion, race relations, and human relations, throughout the entire world.
Young Martin grew up in a relatively middle class home but in a very segregated Atlanta, Georgia. Though he never wanted for food or clothing, he knew that whenever he walked out of his door into white America, he would always be considered “colored,” and therefore always second class.

He could not buy a Coke or a hamburger at any of the downtown stores. He could not sit at a lunch counter. He could not drink water at the “whites only” water fountains, he could not use the “whites only” restrooms, and he could not ride on the “whites only” elevators. If he went to a theater he would have to enter from the “colored” entrance. If he rode a bus he would have to sit in the back, in the “colored” seats, and if he wanted to go swimming, golfing, or play tennis, he simply couldn’t because all of the pools, courses, or courts had “whites only” signs in front of them.

Here are some of his own reflections on what it was like to grow up in a segregated world.

KING: (“Growing Up Negro”)
[Growing up] a Negro in America is not a comfortable existence. It means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred, and the defeated. Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your own children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan. Being a Negro in America means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists. It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness. It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.1

CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 1
We shall overcome,
we shall overcome,
we shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
that we shall overcome some day.

NARRATOR: [Music over, melody only, of “We Shall Overcome”]
When he graduated from high school, he went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then Crozier Seminary in Pennsylvania. There he made straight “A”s and received a scholarship to go on to graduate school. He chose Boston University School of Theology, where he again made straight “A”s and received a Ph.D. in Theology.

In later years it was discovered that King copied several quotations from another dissertation into his own without citing them correctly. The act was unfortunate because it has allowed critics to unfairly smear his intelligence in spite of his obvious brilliance.

In Boston he met a young woman named Coretta Christine Scott, who was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music. At first he was unsure about her because he’d heard that she wasn’t too religious; and she was unsure about him because she had heard that he was too short. But after they got to know one another, he grew to believe that her faith was not showy but deeper on the inside than anyone’s he ever knew. As for her concerns, he never grew any taller on the outside, but on the inside he became a giant.
And on June 18, 1953 they were married.


Six months later, in January of 1954, King was invited to come to Montgomery, Alabama, to interview for pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, what would become his first full-time pastorate. And on April 14, he accepted the call to the church.

May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

November 17, after Martin and Coretta had arrived and begun to get settled in with their church and new home, their first child, Yolanda, was born.

And on December 1, as he was making plans for a series of sermons on the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, a black seamstress in Montgomery, named Rosa Parks, after a long day at work, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. She had taken the first seat in the “colored” section of the back of the bus, but the bus filled up, and by law whites could demand that any black person give up their seat at any time. And she had done so before, but today she was tired. She also thought to herself that the Supreme Court has just desegregated the public schools, so if desegregation is good enough for children, it is good enough for adults. So she refused to give up her seat. The bus driver called the police, the police came and arrested her, and the town exploded.

Montgomery was one of the most racially divided cities in the south in those days, and treatment of blacks on buses was especially terrible. Once a black blind man took too long getting on, so the driver closed the door with his leg in it and dragged him for two blocks. Another time a black man argued with the driver over the fare and the police came and shot him dead for arguing with a white man.

Blacks were wanting to riot and whites were wanting to kill blacks who were wanting to riot. So, the black community elected young father, young preacher, young seminary graduate Martin Luther King to organize them to respond to the crisis.

Over two thousand people rallied in front of a church that night to decide what they would do. The air was tense and explosive. It was a dangerous night for both blacks and whites. Rev. Martin Luther King stood up to speak to them that night and here are some of the words that he said. [music stops]

KING: (Montgomery Bus Boycott Speech)

(December 5, 1955, at the Holt St. Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama)
We are here this evening for serious business. We’re here in a general sense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery....And we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer who never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie...

But in our protests, there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from his home by a hooded Negro mob and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order...the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal....If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted, we must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers. Let no people pull you down so low as to make you hate them.2


[Music over]
So, instead of a riot, they organized a boycott of the Montgomery buses, with car pools taking people to work. Non violently they brought the city to its knees. The city took them to court arguing for segregation all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, after over a year of attacks and threats and thousands of daily hate letters and phone calls, after his home was bombed and the police refused to investigate, and after King himself was arrested and jailed twice for speeding and had to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and had his auto insurance policy revoked, after the movement had to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and bail, after all of this and more, the Supreme Court declared that segregation of public transportation facilities was unconstitutional.

CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome” verse 2.
We’ll go hand in hand,
We’ll go hand in hand,
We’ll go hand in hand, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
that we shall overcome some day.

Or: “If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus.”
If you miss me at the back of the Bus,
and you can’t find me nowhere,
Come on up to the front of the bus,
I’ll be riding up there,
I’ll be riding up there,
I’ll be riding up there.
Come on up to the front of the bus.
I’ll be riding up there.


[Music over]
King and his movement became internationally famous after that. Together with Ralph Abernathy and others, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began organizing voter registration throughout the South. At that time, less than ten percent of blacks in America were registered to vote, and in most cases in the South, they were not allowed to register.
In 1960 four black college students in Greensboro North Carolina went into a “Whites only” department store and tried to sit down at the lunch counter and be served. They were arrested, but they took it to court and a nation wide protest movement called “Sit-ins” were born.
In October of that year, Rev. King and several others joined a “sit-in” in Atlanta, Georgia and demanded to be served food just like white people. They too were arrested. Later all were freed but King, who was found to be on “parole” for a traffic violation, and he was sentenced to four months of hard labor in the Reidsville State Prison, the harshest maximum-security facility in the South.
While in prison, wearing leg irons, eating rancid food, in an unheated room, infested with bugs, Martin wrote this letter to his wife, Coretta:
[music stops]

KING: (Letter to Coretta)
(October 26, 1960, in Georgia’s maximum security prison for a traffic violation after being arrested at a sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia.)
October 26, 1960

Hello Darling,
Today I find myself a long way from you and the children...I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to, especially in your condition of pregnancy, but as I said to you yesterday this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people....
I have the faith to believe that this excessive suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country.
Just how, I do not know yet, but I have faith to believe it will. If I am correct then our suffering is not in vain.
I understand that everybody—white and colored—can have visitors this coming Sunday. I hope you can find some way to come down....
Give my best regards to all the family. Please ask them not to worry about me. I will adjust to whatever comes in terms of pain. Hope to see you Sunday.
Eternally yours,


[Music over]
But King did not spend the four months in prison. As it happened, a young U.S. Senator and presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy personally called the judge who had sentenced him and talked him into reversing his decision. Interestingly, when he got out he held a press conference and praised Senator Kennedy for his help. The word spread, and a few days later he received hundreds of thousands of votes from black voters who had never voted in an election in their entire lives. Kennedy won that presidential election by only 110,000 votes.


CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome” verse 3,
We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
that we shall overcome some day.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” verses 1,2.
Paul and Silas bound in Jail
Had no money for to pay their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.
Hold on.
Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on.
Paul and Silas began to shout,
the jail door opened and they walked out.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....


[music over]
The reputation of Martin Luther King and the movement grew larger and larger through the early sixties. There were more sit-ins, there were more boycotts, there were more protests, all slowly tearing down the most visible excesses of the walls of oppression and discrimination in America. Through it all King began to increasingly see that the struggle was no longer just for civil rights, but that it had become a movement for human rights. For when one part of humanity is held down and repressed, then all of humanity is harmed and made less because of it.
But perhaps the turning point in his life, and the life of the movement, took place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham was arguably the most oppressive and thoroughly segregated city in the nation in those days. It had such a long history of brutality and violence against its black citizens, that it was known by some as the “American Johannesburg.” The homes of blacks in one section of town were bombed by whites so often it got the name “Dynamite Hill.”
Birmingham was so bad that it banned a story book about friendly white and black rabbits. It also banned what they called, “nigger music” on white stations. By that they meant Ray Charles. King once said that about the only thing in town that both blacks and whites shared together were the streets and the sewer system.
The police commissioner of Birmingham was Eugene Connor, known as “Bull” Connor in the area. He was an angry, forceful racist who openly bragged about how many blacks he had beaten and killed in his lifetime. He promised that “blood would run in the streets” before Birmingham would desegregate its public facilities.
On April 3, 1963, the protest of Birmingham began, with boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, and daily marches, all done quietly and calmly, completely nonviolently. “Bull” Connor began arresting protesters but hundreds more came. Over the weeks the Birmingham jail had over three thousand people in it and yet more still came. King himself was one of those arrested early in the marches. Ironically he was taken to jail on April 13, Good Friday, one hundred years to the day from when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. King spent the next ten days running the campaign from in the Birmingham Jail.
While there, he had been given a newspaper in which a number of white clergy, Christian and Jewish, had written a public letter criticizing him for pushing integration too quickly. He sat down in his cell and on pieces of newspaper, rags, toilet tissue, and backs of envelopes, he wrote a public response. His response became known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and has become one of the most famous statements about non- violent civil disobedience written in this century. And here is a portion of what he said.
[music ends]

KING: (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
(April 16, 1963, while imprisoned in the Birmingham City Jail for protesting the segregation of eating facilities. In response to a letter in the newspaper by local Protestant and Jewish clergy who criticized him for pushing integration too quickly.)
April 16, 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”...Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
[You are right when you note that we are outsiders coming in to your community, but we have come to Birmingham because there is terrible injustice here and we must respond like the Apostle Paul did to the Macedonian call for help.] Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly....Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
[You also mentioned the demonstrations in Birmingham, which you deplored, but you did not mention the horrible conditions that made them necessary: the unsolved bombings, the killings, the whole ugly record of brutality that made Negro life here so grossly unjust. You advised us to negotiate our problems with the city fathers, something that we have frequently attempted to do, only to have them break their promises time and again.] As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.

[You told us that our protests were “untimely” and that we should trust you and “wait.” For centuries the Negro has heard “wait,” and “wait” has nearly always meant “Never.”] We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights...Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers [and sisters] smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television;...when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are)...; and your wife and mother are never given the respected title of “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.4


[Music over]
Outside, “Bull” Connor seemed intent on proving that racism could be even more evil than King had described it in his letter. He had firemen turn fire hoses on the marchers, which sent columns of water crashing into children and adults, knocking them down, ripping their clothing, smashing them against the sides of buildings, sweeping them off of the streets, bloodying their bodies and throwing them into parks and alleys. Then he let loose German shepherd dogs trained to attack and bite and tear at running people. Day after day television cameras showed a shocked world the horrors, but day after day the carnage continued, and day after day the marchers continued marching for freedom.
The turning point occurred on Sunday, May 5, 1963, when three thousand children went on a prayer vigil to the Birmingham jail, where King and others were being held. When they arrived, the police threatened them and screamed at them, but all they did was kneel in prayer. Finally, one of the protesters stood up from his prayer and said to them, “We’re not turning back. We haven’t done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom....How do you feel doing these things?”
“Bull” Connor yelled at his men to turn on the hoses, but nobody moved. The children continued praying. His men were silent. He yelled again, but they dropped their hoses. One of the firemen began crying. “We can’t continue to do this,” one of them said. The children continued silently praying. Nobody spoke again, and nobody got hurt. That event was the moral turning point of the struggle. Soon after that, the businesses of Birmingham agreed to integrate.

“The Storm is Passing Over”
Or: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 4.
Our God will see us through,
Our God will see us through,
Our God will see us through, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
that we shall over come some day.

Or: “Keep your Eyes on the Prize,” Verses 3, 4, 5.
The only Chain that we can stand,
is the chain of hand in hand...
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.
Hold on.
Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

The only thing that we did wrong,
was stay in the wilderness too long.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....

The only thing we did right,
was the day we started to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....


The next few years were a whirlwind. In the space of just one year the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in Birmingham was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King was invited to have an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, and he led a successful 125,000 person “Walk for Freedom” in Detroit. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And on August 28, 1963, he took part in the largest civil rights demonstration in history, in Washington DC. At that march, King was the major speaker and gave one of the most powerful and lasting statements in his life on his philosophy and hopes and his dreams for all of America. It has come to be known as the “I have a dream speech.”
[music ends]

KING: (“I Have a Dream”)
(August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC)
...I say to you today, my friends...even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let Freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”5

CHOIR: “Free At Last”
Or: “I Want to be Ready”
Or: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 5.
The truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
that we shall overcome some day.


[music over]
Over the next few years the dream of King seemed to go bad. Protesters who promoted violence seemed to be on the rise and people who promoted love and peace among all people seemed to be on the decline. Riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and others seemed to undermine all that he had worked for. More and more of the momentum of the early civil rights movement seemed to be slipping away.
Increasingly during this time King was growing to believe that race is only one of the issues which was at the core of America’s problems. Its violent nature and general disregard for poor people seemed to him to be the larger issues which stood over race. So for the summer of 1968 he planned to hold the biggest march on Washington ever. This time the march would not be specifically about black people or civil rights, but also about poverty. He called it the “Poor People’s Campaign.” This would be a chance, he thought, to reframe the movement in a much broader context, and to regain its moral tone and direction that had seemed to be waning in recent years.
But right in the middle of his plans for the march, he was asked to come to Memphis, Tennessee, to lend support to striking sanitation workers. Even though his schedule was brutal and he was too tired, too busy, and was growing sick with the flu, he agreed to go. By the time that he arrived, he had grown so ill he was unable to prepare a formal speech and he even tried to beg off of talking to the group at a pre-strike rally. His friend Ralph Abernathy agreed to go address the group instead, but when he got there he found two thousand people clamoring to hear Rev. King speak, not Ralph Abernathy. So he went to a phone and called King saying that if he had any energy left, could he come out to these people and at least say a few words to them. King relented. He drove to the church that night in driving rain, stumbled weakly to the podium, and without notes or manuscript or any idea of what he was about to say, he delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his life. He gave what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech. These are some of the words that he said, on April 3, 1968.
[music ends]

KING: (“I’ve Been To The Mountain Top”)
(Last speech, before a rally in support of the Memphis garbage strike, April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was assassinated the following day, April 4.)
...We have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that people have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival forces us to grapple with them. For years now people have been talking about war and peace. But now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world, it is nonviolence or nonexistence.
[Begin music over of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”]

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
...If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. 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 the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so, just as I say we aren’t going to let any dog or water hose turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
...Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
...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 mountain top. 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 God’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 anyone. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.6


[No music]
The next day, April 4, 1968, King and Abernathy and several others spent most of the day in their room at the Lorraine Motel planning for the big events of the next few days. He met with some of the organizers of the march, and tried to streamline events so that they would not get out of hand. He met with a group of violent black youths to see if he could talk them into laying down their clubs and rocks and working with him as non-violent marshals of the march. They refused. He met with Andrew Young, who spent most of the day in court making arrangements so that the march would be considered a legal protest. He even took time to visit with his brother AD who was visiting in town, and together they got on separate phones and called their mother.
At about 5:00, they all began to change clothes and get ready for dinner. They were going to the home of a local pastor who had invited all of them over for dinner. A few moments before six, the pastor arrived and people began to gather outside to leave. King stood at the doorway and yelled in to Abernathy, “Are you ready?” Abernathy said back, “Let me put on some after shave lotion.” King said, “Ok. I’ll be standing out here on the balcony.”
At 6:05 that evening, Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and several others were standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, waiting to go to dinner. The car that was to drive them pulled up. He recognized the driver as Ben Branch, the young man who was to sing for them after the dinner. He yelled down. “Ben,” he said, “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.” Ben yelled back, “Okay, Doc, I will.”
At 6:09 they heard the sound of a shot ringing out. The sound of a .30-06 high-powered rifle. King slammed backwards against the wall of the balcony and then fell forward onto the balcony floor. Ralph Abernathy rushed out to him. Someone else found a pillow to put under his head. A secret service agent held a towel to the wound in his neck to try and stop the bleeding. Others were running up the stairs, some were running for cover, some were screaming.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

During the next few minutes Ralph held the head of his dearest, closest friend in his lap while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and watching the life bleed out of him. He spoke to Martin several times during those minutes, but Martin could only respond with his eyes. Years later Ralph said that he heard much from those eyes that night. Martin Luther King looked at him very awake, and very alert, and with his eyes he seemed to be speaking very clearly. He was saying, “Ralph, it isn’t over. It’s only in other people’s hands now. Don’t give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” ...And then he died.


Written to be read by President Reagan, who opposed King and the Civil Rights era, but agreed to allow November 2, 1986, to be set as Martin Luther King Day. Because of his contentious relationship with the movement, feel free to compose your own conclusion using local allusions. 
“Let all Americans continue to carry forward the banner that...fell from Dr. King’s hands. Today, all over America, libraries, hospitals, parks and thoroughfares proudly bear his name. His likeness appears on more than 100 postage stamps issued by dozens of nations around the globe. Today we honor him with speeches and monuments. But let us do more. Let all Americans of every race and creed and color work together to build in this blessed land a shining city of...justice and harmony. This is the monument Dr. King would have wanted most of all.”7

“Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” verses 1,2,3.
Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
precious Lord, linger near,
when my life is almost gone,
Hear me cry, hear my call,
hold my hand, lest I fall:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When the shadows appear
and the night draws near,
and the day is past and gone,
At the river I stand,
guide my feet, hold my hand:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.


Ayres, Alex. The Wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Meridian Books, 1993.
Carawan, Guy and Candie, eds. Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corporation, 1990.
Garrow, David. “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influences and Commentaries,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, (Vol. XL, No. 4, 1986).
King, Coretta Scott, ed. The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New Market Press, 1987.
Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1994.
1 Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.
2 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1994), pp. 70, 71; and David Garrow, “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influences and Commentaries,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, (Vol. XL, No. 4, 1986), p. 15.
3 Alex Ayres, ed., The Wisdom of Martin Luther King (New York: Meridian Books, 1993), pp. 183, 194. Toward the end of this letter, King requested that Coretta bring him several books to read while in prison. They were deleted from the presentation because the names would be unfamiliar to most audiences. However, if your presentation group feels that your particular audience would recognize the names and be interested in knowing them, feel free to return them to the letter. The following is the deleted portion:
“Please bring the following books to me: Stride Toward Freedom, Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Vol. 1 and 2, George Buttrick’s The Parables of Jesus, E. Stanley Jones’ Mahatma Gandhi, Horns and a Halo, a Bible, a Dictionary, and my reference dictionary called Increasing Your Word Power....”
4 Let the Trumpet Sound, pp. 223-230.
5 Words of Martin Luther King, pp. 95-97.
6 Words of Martin Luther King, pp. 93-94.
7 Wisdom of Martin Luther King, pp. 226, 227.

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