In 1965, Dr. King began speaking out against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. In a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” given in April of 1967 at the New York City Riverside Church, Dr. King called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Dr. King also argued that the war was taking money away from domestic needs, especially anti-poverty programs. Dr. King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Dr. King accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, “mostly children.” This speech instantly turned the media against him, including the Washington Post, which wrote that Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
In 1968, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the “Poor People's Campaign” which marched on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid and a bill of rights for poor Americans, but this campaign was not entirely supported by other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. More militant blacks criticized Dr. King and disagreed with his dream of racial integration. Dr. King said that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King gave the last speech of his life in Memphis, Tennessee at the Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. It was this occasion where he gave his “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and at the close of this oration he referred to a bomb threat against him.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. 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.”
At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. According to Jesse Jackson, who was there, Dr. King’s last words were to Ben Branch, a musician who was scheduled to perform that night. “Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” After emergency surgery, Dr. King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital at 7:05 p.m., only 39 years of age.
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986, called Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the holiday to be observed on the third Monday of January each year. On January 17, 2000, for the first time, Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all 50 U.S. states.
At Mrs. King’s request, a recording of Dr. King’s last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968 was played at his funeral. It was entitled “I Am a Drum Major for Justice.” The following is an excerpt.
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it, by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”