On the eve of his assassination, King delivered an improvised masterpiece, Ive been to the Mountaintop. In it, the civil rights leader foresaw his own death.
While the man who would assassinate him the next day was holed up in the New Rebel motel, hundreds of people were filtering into Mason Temple, in Memphis, Tennessee, to hear Martin Luther King Jr, speak. Outside, a thunderstorm was raging. The people clustered in the front of the church, shedding their rain-spattered jackets as they took their seats.
Then they waited.
King was an hour and a half late. Pausing a moment as he stepped to the rostrum, he peered over a welter of microphones. As TV cameramen flooded him with light, his face took on a luminous sheen. But something seemed amiss.
After he greeted the audience, he lauded them for braving the storm, coming to the rally, showing that they had the backbone to carry on with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
In the words to follow King had nothing more to say about the storm. Yet you could say that the storm still had something to say to him. Time and again, wind gusts punched open two large window fans near the ceiling of the auditorium. The shutters clacked shut each time, startling King.
“Every time there was a bang,” Billy Kyles recalled later, “he would flinch.”
King looked “harried and tired and worn and rushed”, observed one minister. He had a sore throat and was sleep-deprived. By the end of the speech that he would deliver that night, everyone in Mason Temple would know another reason why he seemed out of sorts.
There had been no time to prepare, even if he had intended to do so.
King often spoke without notes, even when the stakes were extremely high. He was doing it again on this night. He had an astonishing knack for speaking off the cuff. He seemingly had a photographic memory.
In his first big moment as a civil rights leader, during the kickoff rally to commence the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, he had 20 minutes to compose his remarks. He had delivered a riveting speech that had his audience clapping and howling their support. The “I have a dream” finale of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963 catapulted him to legendary heights. That stunning riff was famously a spur-of-the-moment departure from the prepared text.
The first theme of his remarks at Mason Temple that Wednesday night seemed far removed from Memphis. Imagine, he said, still speaking quietly, that the “Almighty” was transferring him back in time. King’s first stop, he said, would be Egypt in biblical times. He would visit classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Christian Reformation under his namesake Martin Luther, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
King said he would not stop his trip through history there. No, he would ask the Almighty to allow him to live in current-day America.
Read more: www.theguardian.com