We have been celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Obviously, he made it his mission to help the oppressed in this country, and, to understand his struggle and the struggle of others, everyone should visit the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. When I think about Martin Luther King, many things come to mind, but his speeches stand out. His voice. His style. His cadence. Like all great speakers, he could mesmerize his audience and draw them into his message. It was this ability that made the rest of his works possible.
He made many speeches, but two stand out among the rest. King’s last speech shows the weariness of a long struggle and seems to offer a prophecy about his death. Interestingly, he wasn’t going to speak that night but went at the last minute.
The speech that left an impression in the minds of most Americans and in the pages of history took place during the March on Washington. Thousands of people waited through a long program to hear him speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This speech provides a powerful message, but the last part is remembered the most. As a great speaker, Martin Luther King probably designed it that way.
As King finishes, he says, “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
I have heard those words many times in history classes and on documentaries, but, when I first heard them as a kid, I didn’t grasp the meaning. I was too busy trying to figure out what a spiritual was. Through the years, I have discovered what a spiritual is, and I make sure that my students know what it is, as well.
A spiritual is a religious song that was developed by slaves. Some historians believe that they held hidden messages of escape to freedom, and other historians believe that they were a way to express faith. Many spirituals have been collected through the years, and I had one sung to me when I was a kid.
My dad’s aunt used to rock me while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Here was a woman who would not admit to her Cherokee descent singing a spiritual developed by slaves to a little white kid. I was up in years when the irony of that struck me.
Anyway, people know the words – Free at Last – from a speech, but people may not know the song. If you are interested, then you can listen to it.