SJU Professor Puts Martin Luther King's Final Speech in Context

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

by Patricia Allen

On April 4th, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., much attention will likely be paid to his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." The speech, delivered April 3, 1968 at the Masonic Temple in Memphis to a relatively small crowd of 2,000 people, has since become one of King's most famous.

But Arnold Farr, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and director of the African-American studies program at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says that it is important to remember the context in which this speech was given, with King at a low point emotionally and well aware of the dangers he was facing.

"When he gave this speech, Dr. King's popularity was beginning to wane in the black community as well as in the U.S. in general," says Farr. "African Americans were growing a bit restless and uncertain of the success of nonviolent action, and many Americans were angry that King had the audacity to speak out against the Vietnam War."

Farr said that there is a tendency to place King on a pedestal, but that this speech showed King's humanity.

"At this point in his life, King had become somewhat depressed, exhausted and uncertain about the future of his movement," says Farr. "This speech reveals King in his most human moment, which was also his greatest moment." Farr says that King's final speech made many references to mortality, almost presciently.

"In his speech we see him struggle with the imminent possibility of his own death while at the same time he resolves to stay in the struggle," Farr says.

It is important to remember that King was not immune to the pressures he faced as a civil rights leader, according to Farr.

"We often forget that he was a human being who struggled with the same fears, disappointments, and uncertainties as the rest of us," Farr says. "King's greatness should not be thought to be the product of some superhuman quality that is missing in the rest of us, but rather lay in his ability to deal with his humanity."

Arnold Farr, Ph.D., can be reached at 610-660-1543 or, or by contacting the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.

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