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Social justice advocates honor MLK on eve of historic speech anniversary

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. read these words 50 years ago, but they're still relevant to social justice efforts today, activists say.

Standing in front of City Hall Monday evening, 126 Bostonians, representing the city’s 26 neighborhoods, read portions of The Mountaintop Speech, the last public address given by Martin Luther King Jr., delivered on the day before his assassination.

It was 50 years ago, on April 3, 1968, that King spoke those words in Memphis, Tennessee — but to Kevin Peterson, director of the organization behind the event, their message is timeless.

“The meaningfulness of the speech is its focus on social justice for all Americans,” Peterson said. “It looks to areas of economic inequality and racism and discrimination of all sorts as the first step toward finding solutions to rid the culture of those things that create inequality.”

The reading was the first in a series of events planned by The Mountaintop Project, a program run by the New Democracy Coalition. Peterson is the founder and executive director of the coalition, a nonprofit that aims to educate citizens on civic engagement and the electoral system.

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The Mountaintop Project focuses specifically on King’s last speech. Later in the spring, the project will host faith and community gatherings to bring together activists who want to find solutions to Boston’s inequalities.

Though King delivered this speech in Tennessee, he had strong ties to Boston that make this effort even more meaningful to Peterson. King “developed intellectually and spiritually,” Peterson noted, while studying at Boston University’s School of Theology, and he lived in Roxbury while also preaching here.

“His formation was created in many ways in the city of Boston,” Peterson said. “This project is in some ways an attempt to claim Dr. King as someone that Bostonians should be looking to as a significant presence in our city.”

Local figures like former Gov. Deval Patrick, City Council President Andrea Campbell, Boston University Associate Provost Kenn Elmore, former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and more read aloud portions of the speech, in which King touched on his own mortality.

“We've got some difficult days ahead,” King said in 1968, one day before he was fatally shot. “But it really doesn't matter to 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.”

Peterson said this speech is important to highlight because “it could have been written yesterday.”

“The speech speaks to ongoing issues of racism, militarism and economic injustice in our society, which remain even 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King,” he said. “We’re celebrating these words that Dr. King made — we’re not mourning his assassination. We’re celebrating his last words as a way to get a deeper understanding of our social justice goals in our society.”