UPI Feature

"I Have a Dream" 50th Anniversary: The 25 greatest speeches in American history

On the annivesary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s seminal speech, we look back at some of the most important moments in spoken American history. While it is almost impossible to objectively quantify the "importance" of a speech, we have tried to compile a list of events where the personality of the speaker, the circumstances of the time and the language of their address came together to create a moment that stands the test of time.

25. Martin Luther King Jr.: "I've Been to the Mountaintop"

Memphis, Tenn. -- April 3, 1968

King's speech in April 1968 was meant to call for civil disobedience and unity in the face of prejudice, protesting the poor pay of the black sanitation workers in Memphis. Instead, it became best known as his final speech: the next day, King was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. King nearly skipped the event: He, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson had led a march through the city, and he felt ill. But Abernathy called him, promising to do the preaching but insisting that King speak. 

While King had received death threats for years, he spoke in a way that some felt was prophetic. His flight that morning from Atlanta had been delayed as the pilot crew carefully checked the plane and baggage for tampering or bombs.

As he finished the speech, he invoked the biblical Moses, promising that even if he didn't get to go to the promised land with his friends, his people would get there:

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. [applause] 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! 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!

Post compiled by Gabrielle Levy, contributions from Rafael Bernal, Jade Vowles and Caroline Lee.
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