MLK’s Final Speech: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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Last summer marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. Seen and heard by millions on television and radio, the speech established King as a master orator and led to his being named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 as well as his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The “dream” portion of the speech was a positive note in a rally that aimed to draw attention to the desperate need for civil rights and economic reform for African Americans in the United States.

If King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired Americans to seek a better, nonviolent and racially just future—a future he hoped to see—his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given on the eve of his assassination in 1968 ominously described the price King would pay for his beautiful vision.

A wanted man by many Southern whites and labeled a dangerous radical by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, King was no stranger to personal danger. While King believed the rightness of his cause would prevail only through nonviolent action, his enemies did not play by the same rules. Indeed, they bombed King’s house during the months-long Montgomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Park’s December 1, 1955, arrest for violating Jim Crow laws by sitting at the front of a local bus. But King didn’t quit. In another incident, King was stabbed during a book signing in a department store in 1958; and while marching in Chicago in 1964, he was hit by a brick thrown from the sidelines. In a 1969 article, King’s wife Coretta recalls that in 1963, upon hearing that President John F. Kennedy was shot, King had said to her, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”

In April 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking African American city sanitation workers. His April 3rd flight into Memphis had been delayed because of a bomb threat. Speaking at the Masonic Temple that evening, King remarked on the “sick” society and the recent threat to his life. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech concluded with these words:

“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. So 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.”

These were the last words spoken in public by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The next evening, April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, King was shot and killed.

Like Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, King could imagine, maybe even see, the promised land, but he could not reach it himself. A deeply religious man, King could be happy about the limits of his earthly role. He had led the people to the mountain, to the vantage point from which the solutions to inequality and violence could be seen. But it was up to others to make their way up the mountainside and down into the valley.

As we remember Dr. King today, take some time to think about how far we have come since his death. Have we reached the promised land yet?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

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