13 Passages From Martin Luther King's Final Speech That Are Just As Powerful Today

"You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together."

Fifty years ago today, on the day before he died, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee. Years later, King's last speech, which both addressed the plight of striking local sanitation workers and took stock of the risks he faced as the result of his role in the civil rights movement, seems as prescient as it was powerful.

During his speech, the civil rights leader spoke in particular of a letter he had received a decade earlier while recovering from stab wounds in a New York City hospital. In the 1958 letter, a high school girl, recently identified by The Wall Street Journal, said she'd heard he would have died from his wounds had he sneezed — and so she was very glad that he didn't sneeze.

King's reflection on that letter in many ways anchored his April 3 speech, tying his planned advocacy for the sanitation workers in Memphis to his already-gargantuan figure and the future he and his fellow activists fought for.  The speech, which would become known as "I've Been To The Mountaintop," touched on his mortality and the movement he hoped would outlive him.

Many of the passages from King's final speech feel just as necessary, just as immediate, and just as impactful today. We've collected them below.

1. "I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

2. "Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence."

3. "We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying -- We are saying that we are God's children. And that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live."

4. "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."

5. "There was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn't stop us."

6. "All we say to America is, 'Be true to what you said on paper.' "

7. "Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on."

8. "We don't need any bricks and bottles. We don't need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, 'God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned.'"

9. "Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together."

10. "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?'"

11. "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."

12. "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."

13. "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 ... 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! ... Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Cover image via Shutterstock / Winston Tan.

More From A Plus


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.