By Eseoghene Otomiewor
Most people have heard about Rev. Martin Luther King Junior’s famous speech, I Have a Dream. However, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which was the final one before he was assassinated on April 4, remains one of the most unheard speeches in American history. On the night of April 3, 1968, while standing at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King Jr spoke for more than 40 minutes on segregation in America and his movement towards the equality of all races. It was a speech where he used stories about his life and events from the Bible to call for economic justice in the United States, something that is still relevant today in the wake of the murder of several black lives unjustly.
What he drove home in his message using his overall attitude towards the importance of equality, sanitation worker’s strike and the purpose of the civil rights movement lives on in the Black Lives Matter movement today which protests against police brutality against black people in United States. While a storm raged outside, he gave his last speech and the words remain relevant 52 years later.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF HIS SPEECH
Dr King Jr who gave his Mountaintop speech at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in 1968 was different from the one that gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the Washington March. At the first speech, he had been talking about the possibility of a better world but five years later, he was focusing more on the solutions to poverty while also planning for a Poor People’s March on Washington sometime later. His Mountaintop speech was in support of the striking African-American sanitation workers in Memphis who were earning terrible wages without recognition for their Union. In his typical fashion, Dr. King Jr had his audience visualizing his stories:
As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”–
In answer to this question, he talked about how he would love to live in the time of Egypt where he would cross through the wilderness to the promised land. He said that he would go to Greece to watch how Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon while they discussed important issues. He wanted to watch the growth of the Roman Empire through various leaders in its great heyday. Dr King Jr mentioned how he would live at the time of the Renaissance to see its contribution to the esthetic life of man. However, he wasn’t done. He was named after Martin Luther, a German monk who used his theses to condemn the typical practice of offering forgiveness of sins in exchange for donations at the Roman Catholic Church. When Michael King learned about this as a child, he adopted the name Martin Luther and passed it on to his child, Dr. King Jr. Dr. King Jr said he would love to watch as his namesake tacked theses on the door of churches. However, what stood out in all these is that he still wished that he would live “a few years in the second half of the twentieth century.” This was a time where blacks were fighting against several instances of oppression, in search of true freedom.
But I wouldn’t stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
Then, as it is now, there was a lot of unrest as African-Americans marched on the streets in their quest to have a voice, as they wanted an end to poor wages and injustice. Just a few weeks before that speech, there had been a march that ended in violence. African-Americans were being more vocal about their rights to ride in buses and get better education. They were being brutalized for demanding for something better like it was in 1963. During a protest by young demonstrators, the public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, directed police officers to use firehoses on the children and attack them with dogs. Yet, they had had enough and were still peaceful in the face of violations as they made their grievances known.
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.
MODERN CONTEXT OF HIS SPEECH
Here is the first statement that lets us truly understand the modern context of Dr. King Junior’s Mountaintop speech.
And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding–something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee–the cry is always the same–“We want to be free.”
The recent widespread Black Lives Matter protests have been in response to the gruesome murder of George Floyd which was captured on camera. African-Americans all around the country watched in horror as a police officer, meant to protect citizens of the United States, instead ended the life of one by deliberately kneeling on his neck despite his “I can’t breathe” pleas. This was one death too many and people began to rise up all around the country. The sheer impunity of the action of Derek Chauvin and the other police officers who held George Floyd down sparked outrage in lots of cities as African-Americans gathered in protest. However, it wasn’t just African-Americans watching but the stage was set in front of the whole world. Different countries around the world lent their voices as people showed solidarity to this movement. These were cries for justice saying that, enough is enough. This was what Dr. King meant when he said, “The masses of people are rising up and the cry is always the same…we want to be free”. This is emphasized in his statement,
We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
African-Americans have in recent times, been forced to live in constant fear of law enforcement officers. During Dr. King Jr’s speech, he was talking about how the African-American people were impoverished by the atrocious wage gap. In modern context, this would be in reference to how almost every brush with police officers is met with a lot of tension as most of these encounters end with the shedding of black blood. It begs the question, “How does a race survive in a country where it feels like there is a target on their heads all the time?”
WHAT THESE WORDS MEAN IN A BLM RALLY
The words of the Dr. King Jr’s “I have seen the Mountaintop” speech could be played without the time stamp and people would believe that it was made in the 21st Century. A revolution has begun in our time just as it was in Dr. King Jr’s time and he was emphasizing the need to march peacefully as one voice.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
All the efforts of African-Americans towards getting justice could go down the drain if the “masters” succeed at creating discord among them. In a BLM rally, this would be a call for Black people to remain united in the face of adversity as that gives more strength.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Back then it was a speech targeted at the strike by the sanitation workers but in a BLM rally today, it would be targeted at the refusal of the United States to give justice to African-Americans whose lives were cut short brutally in their prime. African-Americans who were snatched from their loved ones in the most gruesome way possible. However, the protests on the murder of George Floyd was also accompanied by the looting of stores, something that the media has also focused on. This development has created a false screen where people are focusing more on “touts,” which in actuality doesn’t involve just black people, rather than the major subject of the protests. Dr. King Jr talked about how the media didn’t focus on the 1300 sanitation workers on strike but more on the window-breaking.
In a BLM rally today, this speech would emphasize on the need for African-Americans to channel their anger towards peaceful protests only as it takes only a little violence to crumble efforts towards their demand for justice.
His last statement, “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. 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”, reiterates the fact that he doesn’t mind losing his life in the process of fighting for justice as he envisions a better future.
Ironically, he was assassinated the next day, which led a lot of people to believe that these were cryptic words suggesting that he may have suspected that his end was near. He had seen a “promised land” where the subject of the African-American struggle results in total liberation. Saying these words at a BLM rally is to let African-Americans know that fighting for justice will come with possible loss of life but it will be all worth it if it takes us closer and closer to the promised land of true freedom and justice.