Martin Luther King's last sermon: 'I've seen the promised land'

Fifty years ago tomorrow, Rev Dr Martin Luther King was murdered by James Earl Ray at his motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

But today, April 3, is the anniversary of the last sermon he ever preached. It was at the the Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis.

Selma marchers arrive in Montgomery; Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King are centre.

It was a sermon that was hopeful without being triumphalist. King took a flight through time and invited his hearers to think of the great moments of human history – the Exodus, the great classical age of Greece, the Romans, the Renaissance, Luther and Lincoln.

'But I wouldn't stop there,' he said. 'Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.'

Why? He admits it's a strange choice. But, he said: 'The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – "We want to be free."'

With clarity and power, he said: 'We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.

'And that's all this whole thing is about. 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 that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live.'

He urged his hearers not to be divided by their enemies (Pharaoh's strategy in Egypt) and to avoid the distraction of violence. He recalled the brutality directed at the non-violent marches in Birmingham under the police chief there, and how it failed to defeat them. He praised the preachers who had been in the forefront of the struggle, but warned them, too: 'It's alright to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.'

King urged black solidarity upon his hearers, reminding them of the economic power of the boycott. And he drew on the parable of the Good Samaritan for an unforgettable lesson. Why didn't the priest and the Levite stop to help him? It was, he said, because they were afraid – this was a dangerous place. 'And so 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?"'

King finished his sermon by referring to the time he had been stabbed by a demented woman; the blade had come so close to his aorta that if he had sneezed he would have died. He was glad, he said, that he hadn't sneezed, because of the things he'd seen in his lifetime. But, he said: '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. 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 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.'

The next day, at just after six in the evening, he was shot in the head and pronounced dead an hour later.