Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic ‘Mountaintop’ speech

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t want to speak on April 3, 1968 in Memphis.

It was raining and he didn’t think anyone would show up at Mason Temple. Plus, he was tired and restless.

But King spoke for 45 minutes about everything from human rights to his brush with death a decade earlier, when a deranged woman's blade came so close to the aorta that, if he had sneezed, he would have died.

Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy arrive at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. King returned to Memphis on April 3. As a thunderstorm raged outside, he delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop," speech at Mason Temple.

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

»RELATED: How King almost died in 1958 and the woman who tried to kill him

The speech, later to be called, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," and filled with fatalistic language, would prove to be his darkest and most prophetic. Sure, as a Baptist preacher, he had preached about death and how it should not be feared. But during his last year, the prospect of his own death would haunt him, his associates say.

As the rain and thunder pounded Mason Temple, he seemed at peace with dying. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination.

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“I don't know what will happen now,” King said. “We've got some difficult days ahead.”

At that point, King pauses briefly. His face becomes blank, his eyes pained.

Five years earlier, during his “I Have a Dream,” speech, King had a similar pause toward the end. Legend has it that at that point, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urged him to tell the crowd about his “dream.” On the spot, a masterpiece was crafted.

»RELATED: Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before the dream

On this night King regains his thoughts and tells the crowd that he has been to the mountaintop, does not fear any man and through those pained eyes, "have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" 

No one ever asked if he had planned to end the speech that way. He would be dead less than 24 hours later.

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Read more about King's "Mountaintop" speech in "Honoring King," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's package looking at the last year of King's life.

The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB RadioThe three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral. On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country. The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later. The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.