Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK: If I Had Sneezed

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a try to tell America about a dream that I had had." Martin Luther King, Jr

I know an inside story about Dr. Martin Luther King. I bet most of you've never heard it. And it's time you did. Because the irony should escape none of us. And more, because it says something about the man whose life and accomplishments we honor today. It says he was human.

Human not in the sense of foibles and frailties, although he had those too. What man, great or small, does not? I mean human in the manner of his deep humility.

Human in his recognition not of the glory but of the opportunity to lead a movement that would change the course of history, not only for African Americans but for all Americans.

I was too young and never privileged to meet Dr. King, but in later years I knew and worked with his widow, Coretta Scott King through my association with C. DeLores Tucker. I knew and worked with Jesse Jackson in those years, when he was still steeped in the same humility that thrust him forward to carry on Dr. King's mission.

So many times back then during our efforts to put together a fundraiser, launch a voter registration campaign, organize a rally, even draft legislation, I would hear the words "If I Had Sneezed." Over and over. When frustration, exhaustion, fear or anger threatened to overwhelm us, someone would say, "If I Had Sneezed" and determined smiles would reappear, renewed energy emerge, efforts would double.

I eventually learned that "If I Had Sneezed" was insider code for something the general public knows in a whole different way. It's from the sermon Dr. King gave on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee.

That specific phrase is the final rallying cry --and some say a prescient prediction-- in perhaps Dr. King's most important speech. Read just this part of it, then read all of it and listen to Dr. King's immortal words in his own voice.

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. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said, "Yes." And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, your drowned in your own blood -- that's the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in.

I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.

And I want to say tonight -- I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed -- If I had sneezed I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.

And they were telling me --. Now, it doesn't matter, now. 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 on 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 the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. 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 really 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. Longevity 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!!

I still get chills reading and hearing those words. Because the very next day, metaphorically, Dr. King did sneeze.

No matter your political party or candidate, no matter how many changes are still needed, you've got to imagine Dr. King's glorious satisfaction at the strides we've made toward the promised land.

And we all must say to him, GOD BLESS YOU!

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