Sunday, August 27, 2023

"If I Had Sneezed..."


Nobel Peace Prize Archive, 1964. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-1996}}

Sixty years ago on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. He called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism, addressing a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC that was estimated at 250,000. The speech still has a special power. 

But so too, differently and at times more intimately, does his speech I Have Been to the Mountaintop. This was King's final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968 amid threats to his life, with a sense of foreboding, the day before his assassination.

King illustrates with a sweep across history some milestones pertinent to the realities of his day to encourage sustained efforts to advance civil rights. He encourages commitment to a "dangerous unselfishness" with love for all peopleand extends a call for unity and determination through non-violent protest.

The refrain "If I had sneezed..." emerges toward the end of the speech, when King recalls the time almost a decade earlier, when he was stabbed by a "demented" woman who nearly took his life. The surgeon at Harlem Hospital, who operated on King after this event, commented that the blade of the weapon lodged in his chest so close to the aorta, the main artery, that a single sneeze would have caused his death. 

As King notes, "once that's punctured, you're drowned in your own blood, that's the end of you." He references the surgeon's comment to relate the significance of one message among the many that he received from around the nation and the world, expressing care, concern, and good wishes for his recovery. 

The letter was from a nine-year old white girl, who expressed sincerely and simply how glad she was that he did not sneeze. After quoting this letter, King repeats the refrain "If I had sneezed..." to engage listeners with remembering important advances for the civil rights movement that he would not otherwise have participated in. This progressively becomes a catch cry, punctuating his recollection of the progress he has enjoyed with his listeners, simply because he did not sneeze. 

With this personal story, King enjoins listeners to sustain the movement's progress and offers hope to reach the promised land without him. He exemplifies the courage, wisdom, and prudence required to seek the fairness and honesty of equal rights.

Excerpt Link: 

Complete Speech Text: