Reflection on MLK’s “If I had sneezed” Excerpt from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” preaches Martin Luther King Jr. on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.  On February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two Memphis garbage collectors, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. A few days shy of two weeks from this tragic event, 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. March 28 of 1968, King helped to lead a march in Memphis but it was cut short due to violence. King returned to Memphis on April 3 to prepare to march again to put the focus back on helping sanitation workers instead of a violent outbreak. King’s well known Mountaintop speech magnificently organizes love, unity, truth, and practicality into a well played harmonious symphony for change. Our objective is to shine light on the “If I had sneezed” section of the Mountaintop speech, given by King on that glorious 901 night, in hopes of fortifying our resolve in being an educator and neighbor to all who are in need.  

King commences this section by telling how Izola Ware Curry, a 42 year old mentally ill black woman, stabbed him with a letter opener in Harlem, New York. He was there in Harlem on September 20, 1958, signing copies of his first book Stride Toward Freedom; the Montgomery Story.  After the stabbing, he was rushed to a local hospital. King states, “It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood, that’s the end of you.”  During recovery, he was able to read letters of support from all over the world. He received letters from the president, the vice president, and the Governor of New York. King mentioned his inability to remember their content, but there was one letter he would never forget. According to King the young lady wrote, “Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”  King continues in his Mountaintop proclamation, “I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze.” Then he rolls into a passion filled rhythmical heartfelt oration of “If I had sneezed.”

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed [applause], If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.  

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to the great Movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy I didn’t sneeze

I am so happy, Dr. King, that you didn’t sneeze. I am a living testament, born and raised in northern Mississippi, of your steadfast  love in the face of difficulty and hardship. I am so happy you didn’t sneeze; I have committed my life to willfully follow Christ, joyously suffer alongside of others, and lovingly be a neighbor to all who are in need.  These tasks are impossible for me to do in my strength, but through Christ all things are possible. Luke 1:37 says, ‘For with God nothing will be impossible.” He is able to dress the desert in an ocean of sand that stretches across the hourglass of time. Every speck of dust is accounted for and crafted by His hand. My job is to allow Christ to be Himself within me. Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” So press on teachers. In light of King’s statements, Love with a dangerous unselfish love. God worked providentially in the life of Dr. King, and I can see God’s foreseeing care and guidance in the lives of so many here in Memphis and all over the world. Live in the moment in light of eternity. Cultivate your hearts to allow Christ to love others for the redemption of our city. You are in this time period for a reason. God had a purpose and plan for Dr. King, and He has a purpose and plan for you. He is transforming you into the image of Christ.  You, too, are men and women who are answering the call to love and to share your life with every little boy and girl, no matter the color of their skin or the digits in their zip code.

I leave you with this final quote from Martin Luther King Jr. He was asked the question, “Reporters say you demonstrated unusual grace after the attack. How can one reach the peace and inner certainty you seem to have? And what are your feelings about the repeated attacks on you and your family, despite your oft-proclaimed message of love and nonviolence?” Maude Ballou [personal secretary] sent a draft of this column to Ebony,  King’s last article for the magazine. He discontinued “Advice for Living” after doctors advised him to limit his commitments following his stabbing.

If I demonstrated unusual calm during the recent attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.
As far as the repeated attacks on me and my family, I must say that here again God gives one the strength to adjust to such acts of violence. None of these attacks came as a total surprise to me, because I counted the cost early in the struggle. To believe in nonviolence does not mean that violence will not be inflicted upon you. The believer in nonviolence is the person who will willingly allow himself to be the victim of violence but will never inflict violence upon another. He lives by the conviction that through his suffering and cross bearing, the social situation may be redeemed.

-Shun Abram, Pastor at Binghampton Community Church