I’ve been debating for a while whether to write about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — which, spoiler alert, came “tomorrow,” April 4, 1968 — and the events leading up to it.

On the one hand, we usually deal strictly in trivial matters here, not the serious stuff.

On the other hand, it would be disrespectful to pretend nothing was happening in the world at this point.

On the third hand, it’s a stretch to call this directly Beatles-related. On hand #4, it’s certainly something they would have known about and perhaps been affected by. (Paul and Ringo, back in London, would have heard about it right away; it might have taken a bit longer for the news to reach John and George in Rishikesh.)

On hands 5 and 6, it’s a colossal bummer to talk about — especially since it was not an isolated incident, but the leading edge of a coming wave of death, destruction, and disillusionment; but you probably can’t get a sense of what it was like to live in 1968 without being aware of all the horrible shit that was going on.

So let’s go ahead and get heavy for a couple days. The light entertainment will return.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King gave the last speech of his life — popularly known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. This speech almost didn’t happen. King’s flight to Memphis that day had been delayed by a bomb threat, and when the time for the speech came he was at the hotel in his pajamas, having asked right-hand man Ralph Abernathy to speak in his stead.

I don’t think many of us can properly conceive of the level of exhaustion Dr. King was suffering at that time. A new documentary called King in the Wilderness offers some startling insight into just how difficult recent years had been for him. He had been engaged in the struggle for twelve years straight, at a great cost to his own physical and mental health, but simply would not allow himself to rest. More recently, his decision to come out publicly against the Vietnam War had come with a great cost, alienating him from many he’d considered friends and allies. And of course he was constantly hounded by the FBI and others seeking to discredit him, constantly receiving threats like the one he’d gotten that day.

What’s more, he was dealing with a split within the civil rights movement between those who continued to believe in nonviolence and those who felt the time had come for more militant tactics. The very reason that he was in Memphis was because on his previous visit there, six days earlier, he’d gotten caught up in a protest that turned violent. He’d returned with the intention of organizing a new march that would demonstrate the continued efficacy, indeed the possibility, of nonviolent action.

Even so, despite being dressed for bed, Dr. King was not resting when Abernathy called the hotel to say that the crowd at Mason Temple was clamoring for him. A federal injunction had been issued against the upcoming march, and Dr. King and his staff were planning strategy for a hearing the next day. But Abernathy was convincing; feeling that he owed it to the sanitation workers and their supporters, Dr. King got dressed and drove through the pouring rain to say a few words. He ended up speaking for 43 minutes.

Somewhat remarkably, no complete film of the speech exists, though this was 1968 ferChrissakes. This short clip hits the big highlights:

But it’s worth taking the time to listen to the whole thing. Really.

My pitiful scribblings are no match for the challenge of analyzing a masterpiece like this by possibly the greatest orator ever to draw breath. But here are a few thoughts.

The scope of the speech is amazing. It starts with ancient history and gradually focuses in on what is happening in Memphis at that moment, right down to such granular details as which brands of bread people should boycott. Throughout you get a sense of a man summing up his life — telling you everything he knows and offering a blueprint for how to carry on when he’s gone.

The last few minutes always give me chills. You can tell that Dr. King knew his end was near, and wasn’t deterred. I wonder if on some level he thought that he had done as much as he could as a leader, that his greatest value going forward would be as a martyr. Not that he actively wanted to die, but that he had accepted the idea of his death and realized that it would precipitate a crisis that would bring about change.

And with the words “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Martin Luther King strode off the stage and into the pages of history. Figuratively, if not literally, the greatest mic drop ever.

To listen to this speech is to run the full gamut of human emotions: joy, sadness, wonder, anger, determination, despair, and, in the end, hope. Yeah, hope — so, OK, 50 years later we haven’t fixed all the problems Dr. King talked about, not by a long shot. But any species that can produce a person like this has something going for it. They don’t come along often but there may, yet, be another.

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