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Martin Luther King’s Last Speech Discussed Our First Amendment

By January 21, 2013

Today America celebrates the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King is known to just about every American today, from the smallest schoolchild to the elderly, for his fight against segregation and institutionalized racism. It is less well known, however, that he had many things to say during his life about freedom of speech and the other guarantees in our First Amendment.

King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The day before, he delivered a speech (it would be his last) at the Church of God in Christ’s headquarters building in Memphis, which is now generally known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. About halfway through, when discussing a court injunction forbidding a planned rally and march on April 8, King had this to say about the first freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights:

Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we urge students, faculty, and administrators to read King’s words about the First Amendment and use them to inform their attitudes and policies dealing with these most fundamental freedoms. I can assure you that FIRE, for its part, will continue to be inspired by King’s wisdom.