I’m So Glad He Didn’t Sneeze By Kevin Hofmann Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion “I’ve written a play and I was hoping you would consider playing a part in the play,” Sister Connie said to me after church one Sunday. She was Sister Connie because that is how we referred to each other at our church. We are all part of the same family. She would call me Brother Kevin. I liked that. I asked her what the play was about, and she explained the play was called, “A Morsel of Bread: The Coretta Scott King Story.” Sister Connie had reserved the Valentine Theatre in Toledo, Ohio, a venue that is used primarily to host traveling Broadway plays. We didn’t have one rehearsal yet and Sister Connie had already booked the venue. She was a talented woman with a clear vision. She wanted me to play Coretta’s husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Before she finished her sentence I had agreed. It was an honor to attempt to play this man, and although these were colossal shoes to fill, I wanted to give it a shot. Sister Connie asked me to practice one of his speeches and be prepared to “preach,” like the good Reverend had done so many times. She had suggested I do part of the “I Have a Dream” speech and I respectfully declined. As a writer, I really loved the poetic way in which Dr. King’s speeches flowed. His use of imagery combined with his southern preacher’s diction created a visual masterpiece in my head. I wanted to showcase what an amazing orator Dr. King was; I wanted people to hear he was more than just a “Dream.” I was enthralled when I came across the “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop” speech. The fact that this was the speech he gave the night before he was murdered, the last speech he gave, made it irresistible. Below is my favorite part from that speech: You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented Black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you, Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. 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 drown in your own blood–that’s the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me … to read some of the mail that came in … there was another letter that came from a little girl…. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am 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.” And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because 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. … If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they go somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the 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 see 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 that I didn’t sneeze. - Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “ I’ve Been to the Mountaintop ,” April 3, 1968 The first time I attempted this speech I summoned all the great Baptist preachers that had gone on before me and I poured myself in to the character. The speech calmly and gradually builds to a crescendo with these final powerful words: 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. The speech ends in a fiery conclusion and when I stood still, I was dizzy, breathless, and close to passing out. I too was so happy he didn’t sneeze and even happier that I didn’t lose consciousness. Over time I got the breathing down and the rhythm of the speech gave me energy instead of taking it away. We did three shows at the Valentine Theatre, and for three shows I got to take on this man’s amazing life. It was an honor to be him for such a short time. Through the rehearsals I often wondered what would have happened if he sneezed and we lost this great man so early. Then it became very clear to me why he didn’t sneeze. He didn’t sneeze because his work wasn’t done. He did such great work after the stabbing. He didn’t sneeze because his purpose wasn’t complete. When he felt he led us to the mountaintop he understood intimately that his purpose was to lead us to the promised land even though he might not step foot in the promised land. He understood he wasn’t the movement but simply a gear in the movement that kept things moving forward. He understood the movement was greater than himself. Dr. King is no bigger than anyone of us. We all have purpose. We all have a job to fulfill. We might be called to be caregivers to patients or children. We may be called to lead co-workers or called to speak for the voiceless. We may be called to protect people or protect this planet. We all have value and worth and Dr. King inspires me to chase my purpose until my last breath. Even though he didn’t get to the promised land he left us a map and our journey is not done.