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Mason Temple in Memphis was packed with listeners on this date in 1968. They had come to hear Martin Luther King preach. King had come in support of the city's striking sanitation workers. The audience had come in support of King. He spoke that night of his own mortality in a way that his audience found simultaneously moving and disquieting.

King recalled a book-signing that had taken place in Harlem a decade earlier when a stranger stabbed him in the chest with a steel letter opener. The 42-year-old attacker's name was Izola Ware Curry, and she was suffering from schizophrenia. It could have been worse -- she was carrying a .22-caliber pistol in her bra -- but it was pretty bad: The blade barely missed an artery and King's doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed on the operating table, his lungs would have filled with blood and he'd have died on the spot.

The New York Times reported this harrowing detail at the time, and King told the audience at Mason Temple that while he was recuperating in the hospital, he received letter from a white ninth-grader from White Plains, N.Y. "I'm so happy you didn't sneeze," she wrote.

Standing before his supporters in that Pentecostal church on what was his last full day on Earth, King said, "I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze." If he had done so, he explained, he wouldn't have been around for the Freedom Rides of 1961 or the 1963 events in Birmingham that helped galvanize America into adopting the Civil Rights Act.

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try and tell American about a dream I had," he said. "If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there."

If this sounds a bit like someone writing his own eulogy, it seemed ominous to King's inner circle, too. Although he received frequent death threats, something about his Tennessee trip worried his staff and colleagues. King alluded to that, too, in his soaring cadences that night.

"Well, I don't know what will happen now," he said. "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop!"

A Protestant pastor based in Atlanta, a man of letters, Nobel laureate, husband and father, Dr. King noted that, like anyone else, he'd prefer to live a long life, adding that mostly he wanted to do God's will.

"He's allowed me to go up to the mountain," he proclaimed. "And I've looked over. 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 that's our quote of the week. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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