Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 77 Sunday. Though it has perhaps become a clichi to ask what he would say about America's racial and political landscape if he were still living, the question seems particularly apt this year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Just two years after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech (16:28 Real Audio), delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Monument in August of 1963 and made available here in its entirety by History and Politics Out Loud (HPOL), King told his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, "I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare." He spoke of the murders of civil rights activists and the impoverished neighborhoods that had shattered his dream.
Less than three years later, on April 4, 1968, King would be shot in the neck while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. Later that night, Robert F. Kennedy, then running for the Democratic nomination for president, relayed the news to a gathering of supporters in Indianapolis. In this recording of his comments (6:23 Real Audio; also from HPOL) Kennedy can be heard asking an aide, "Do they know about Martin Luther King?" just before he begins. The crowd's response, a wave of shrieks and moans, remains heartbreaking 38 years later. In this archival BBC report (3:25 Real Audio) from Washington, D.C., shortly after King's assassination, reporter Charles Wheeler describes the small-scale rioting that followed, and Lyndon Johnson pleads for peace.
On the day before his death, King spoke publicly for the last time at a rally in Memphis. Though of course he did not know then what was to happen, King outlined his own legacy and spoke in defiance of the threats on his life, "But it really doesn't matter with me now," King famously declared, "because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind ... 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." This final portion (1:39 Real Audio) of the speech can be heard here courtesy of Stanford's MLK Research and Education Institute.
In this 2001 interview (20:38 Real Audio) from NPR's "Fresh Air," historian Clayborne Carson, director of the institute's King Papers Project and co-editor of "A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," expresses his concern that in the American consciousness King has been reduced to sound bites of "I have a dream" and "I have been to the mountaintop." As for what King might say of race relations if he were still around, Carson has this to offer: "His emphasis on the gap between the rich and the poor, that would be even a stronger message ... today than it was then."
-- Ira Boudway