Dr. King begins his speech by thanking his introducer for the kind words and thanking the audience for coming out to hear him despite a storm warning. The he describes why he is grateful to have had a few years of life during the middle of the twentieth century, and how he would have chosen to live during this time rather than any other time, if he had been given the choice. Then he touches on "the human rights revolution" and "the masses of people . . . rising up" and the choice between "nonviolence or nonexistence." He identifies the basic issue in the Memphis dispute as injustice. And he says, " The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers."
He observes, "For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory." He recounts some previous victories over police dogs and fire hoses and mace, and he says, "Now we've got to go on in Memphis just like that."
After dismissing the court injunctions against him as illegal and unconstitutional, he turns appreciatively to the many ministers in the audience and says, "Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it."
Then he talks about the need to take action here and now, not wait for some long-distant spiritual future. "It's all right to talk about 'long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do."
A DANGEROUS UNSELFISHNESS
After finishing with the immediate practicalities, Dr. King dramatically broadens and expands his ideas to include the highest, most noble aspirations of humanity. "Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
"Now that question [NOTE: "Who is my neighbor?] could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve [Note: in the road] between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the 'I' into the 'thou,' and to be concerned about his brother.
"Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that 'One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.' And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem -- or down to Jericho, rather to organize a 'Jericho Road Improvement Association.' That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
"But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, 'I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.' It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles -- or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the 'Bloody Pass.' And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'
"That's the question before you tonight. Not, 'If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, 'If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?' The question is not, 'If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?' The question is, 'If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?' That's the question.
"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 America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you."
Next, he recounts how he was stabbed and nearly killed by a demented woman during a book signing a few years earlier. And he concludes the speech by comparing that occasion to the present, saying, "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. 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 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! And 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!"
The speech was followed by long sustained applause and a spontaneous singing of "We shall overcome."
The very next day he was shot and killed.
YOU CAN READ AND HEAR THIS SPEECH.