by Helen Breen

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was first established as a national holiday by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

THE LAST SPEECH

On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., flew into Memphis, Tennessee to support striking African American sanitation workers in the midst of a bitter strike. Rumors of death threats against him were rampant. At the Mason Temple that night King would deliver an emotional address, later known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He concluded:

“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 so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following day a sniper’s bullet would end the life of the civil rights leader on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. He was 39 years old.

THE “BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC”

Dr. King’s last public utterance – “Mine eyes has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” – were the first words of the powerful “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The poem was written by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) in November 1861 when she visited Washington with her husband Samuel Gridley Howe who served on the Sanitation Commission during the Civil War. Julia later recalled:

“I went to bed that night as usual …. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and … scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

The “Battle Hymn,” soon sung by Union troops to the tune of “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” became a sensation and the national hymn of the Civil War era.

WRITER, LECTURER, ABOLITIONIST, SUFFRAGIST

Julia’s husband Steven Gridley Howe (1801- 1876) was described by one biographer as a “dictatorial spouse who opposed her literary ambitions.” A Harvard MD and pioneer in work with the blind, he wanted to confine his wife to domestic pursuits and the raising of their six children. He strongly opposed her taking the public stage and resented the celebrity which the “Battle Hymn” brought her.

Surviving her spouse by some 34 years, Julia then traveled the world in support of women’s rights, a cause she embraced with the same enthusiasm with which she had championed abolition years before. Near the end of her life, President Theodore Roosevelt’s proposed that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” replace the “unsingable” Star Spangled Banner as America’s national anthem. His recommendation failed. Yet Julia took the decision with good grace, explaining “I do not desire ecstatic, disembodied sainthood … I would be human, and American, and a woman.”

A sentiment, no doubt, of which Dr. King would approve.

Julia WardHowe

Julia Ward Howe, about the age that she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic. (photo courtesy awesomestories.com)

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe

(first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free*,[14]
While God is marching on.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

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