Preparing for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

January 18th, 2013

With the official celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day just a few days away, it’s a good time to take a look at King’s work itself and ways that it can influence how we observe the day in his honor on Monday. As we note in “The Origins and Traditions of Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” in 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, which encourages Americans to practice community service on King’s birthday holiday. (Learn more about the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service here.) As we prepare for the day of service, take some time to read King’s last speech, given on April 3, 1968—the night before he was shot and killed—in which he urges his fellow civil rights activists to “develop a dangerous kind of unselfishness.”

At the time of the speech, King had traveled to Memphis to support the 1,300 striking sanitation workers protesting low wages and unfit working conditions. At this point in his ministry, he had broadened his mission, speaking out not only for racial justice but also for greater economic equality and against the Vietnam War. On the night of April 3, he gave this sermon to a crowd gathered in the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God.

King begins his address with the assertion that he would choose no other time in which to live or lead, and ends with the affirmation that he has “seen the promised land.” How does he justify his preference for the present age? The speech contains some ideas not present in the other King speeches in this collection: a call for “economic withdrawal” (boycotts) from non-cooperating white businesses, and the development and strengthening of separate black institutions and black-owned banks. Does this represent a retreat from his “black and white together” integrationist “Dream”?

King counsels, as well as models, how to be a better brother to our fellow men. Toward the end of his speech, he asks his listeners to “develop a dangerous kind of unselfishness.” Applying the parable of the Good Samaritan to contemporary circumstances, he states: “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’” Rather, it is this: “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” What does King mean by dangerous unselfishness? How is King inviting his auditors—then and now—to see themselves? Is he persuasive? Finally, why does King conclude by recounting his near-death experience? And why does he self-consciously compare himself to Moses, who was also allowed to go up to the mountaintop and to glimpse—but not enter—the Promised Land? What “Promised Land” has King seen at the end of his life?

Here are some excerpts from King’s speech, the entirety of which can be read at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute:

Now let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. 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 in 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 could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve 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 church meetings, 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 effort.

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 a setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles, or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2,200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the day 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, 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 do 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. 


It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane—there were six of us—the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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—long 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.

Read the whole speech here

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