HISTORY and The King Center have come together to present Mountaintop Moments, a series of videos in which today’s history makers—actors, activists, musicians and sports stars—discuss their vision for an ideal future. In this essay, historian Daina Ramey Berry discusses the inspiration behind the project, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech.
It was a stormy night and the weather was bad but the turnout was not. People had gathered to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., who was back in Memphis to offer inspiration for an ongoing struggle that had celebrated recent victories. King knew that storms pass and that joy comes in the morning, for he had witnessed the pain of water cannons and police dogs; he remembered the Birmingham bombing and the bombing of his own home; but he also saw legislative gains and political successes. He came on the evening of April 3rd, 1968 to share his wisdom, encouragement and support, even though a huge storm was threatening to prevent him from speaking that night.
It wasn’t just the storm threatening. The city was on edge, and racial tensions and unrest were growing. Using the slogan “I AM A MAN,” 1,300 African-American male employees of the Memphis Department of Public Works had gone on strike to demand better working conditions, higher wages and recognition of their union. King knew firsthand that economic injustice was equally as damaging as racial injustice, which was the impetus behind his Poor People’s Campaign. Following the death of two workers, he had already visited Memphis twice in the last month, the first time to give a speech to between 15,000 and 25,000 people. Robert Walker and Echol Cole had been crushed to death by the garbage truck they worked on when they took shelter inside the compactor to escape severe weather. The city had rules on where workers could go to protect themselves and the compactor barrel was the only place they were allowed to take cover. Tragically, it was also the place that compressed them to their death.
Memphis was a community in mourning, but it was also a city weary of authority and fed up with elected officials. There was palpable disappointment among the workers and their allies when storms had forced King to postpone a scheduled march on his first visit. But he was back again on the 28th to lead it. With the support of the workers, religious clergy and students of all ages, activists took to the streets. Their peaceful march ended early due to violence and the presence of thousands of National Guard troops. King’s team took him to Atlanta for protection. However, his commitment to the sanitation workers did not falter. He returned a third time a few days later and despite the storm, he gave his “Mountaintop Speech” to the crowd. The next day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
More than 4,000 people around the world have scaled Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. Climbers have to train and take their bodies to extreme limits in order to see a view from a mountaintop that sits 29,029 feet above sea level. Their single goal is to make it to the top of the mountain. Inevitably, they understand that with this journey comes struggle, pain, sacrifice and sometimes death. They are not alone in their desire to reach the highest point on earth as hundreds of climbers before them shared the same goal. Some made it and many others died along the way. For those fortunate to make it, the last mile of the hike is the most brutal. The air is so thin that oxygen tanks are required. Walking sticks and spikes on the bottom of their boots allow them to grip the ground for stability against stormy unpredictable weather. Fighting fatigue, potential disorientation, frostbite and altitude sickness, climbers continue to climb. They do it year after year with the aid of Tibetan Sherpa guides.
King, too, had a spiritual guide who took him to the mountaintop. In his speech, he reflected on history and used the powerful metaphor of a mountaintop to give people hope. From his perspective, his people and the workers he came to address, were climbing a mountain.
Although his guide did not take him to Mt. Everest, King saw the mountaintop as a place to witness the greatness of human capacity. He had been through valleys and storms, but his guide led him along the way. God was with him and from the mountaintop showed him the Promised Land. He witnessed victories like the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He saw the desegregation of schools and the realities of his dream starting to materialize. Reflecting on his life that stormy night in Memphis, King considered a panoramic view of the past. If God asked him what period in history he would like to live in, King thought about visiting Egypt and witnessing his people cross the Red Sea. He imagined going to Greece and visiting Mt. Olympus where he could see the great philosophers such as “Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon.” But, he said, he would not stop there. He would also visit the Roman Empire, the Renaissance period and seek out Martin Luther as he “tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.” Again, King would not stop there, he would move on to the United States in the year 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, he asked God to allow him to see some of the second half of the 20th century. It was to be his final sermon. The next day, he was shot dead.
In King’s lifetime, he saw his people, the descendants of the enslaved, fight to exercise their citizenship during an important historical era. African Americans spent nearly 300 years in chains working for a country that did not recognize their personhood. They labored in fields, factories, homes, universities, cities and just about every place you can imagine. They did so without wages and were considered chattel, a movable form of property used to benefit the growth and development of a young nation. But when freedom came in 1865, and the monetary value placed upon their bodies did not transfer into wages, 4 million African Americans continued their fight for justice and equality. In my research, I have found that African Americans always valued themselves clinging to the strength of their souls, hoping for a better tomorrow. Echoes of their “soul values” are present today in movements like Black Lives, yet the struggle continues. Yes, we have witnessed the first African-American family in the White House and we celebrated the accomplishment of the Obama election, but we still have more work to do. Just as King and his peers fought to end discrimination and disenfranchisement in the 20th century, we are still trying to create a more perfect society in the 21st century. We are still a divided nation.
King’s idea of the mountaintop encourages us to continue believing that we can achieve anything through persistence, perseverance and prayer. Just like those who climb Mt. Everest traveling from base camp to base camp, through storms with dangerous winds, snow, sleet and rain; the higher they climb, the thinner the air becomes as they pass those who did not make it. Witnessing such atrocities sometimes fuels their desire to reach the top because they believe that the viewpoint from the peak is worth the journey, even if only for a moment.
From my mountaintop, I see a generation of children who want the equality King dreamed of and a world where justice stamps out hatred, bigotry and poverty. On my mountaintop, I cannot help but acknowledge the storms we’ve made it through and give thanks for the lessons learned along the way. From King, I recognize that in order to enjoy the view from the top, we cannot bypass the struggle it took to get there. King had been to the mountaintop and he was hopeful for a better tomorrow.
As we commemorate King’s life and think about his final days and hours, HISTORY has provided a space for public figures to deliver their own mountaintop moments, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future. Actors, musicians, activists and sports stars have all offered their visions of the future. HISTORY and The King Center, the foundation set up by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, to commit to the causes for which her husband died, invite you to share your vision too.
There is a statue of King on the southwest side of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here he towers over us, carved out of a rock, protruding from a mountain, gazing up at the almighty where he now lays to rest. How fitting that in the last few sentences on the eve of his death, King shared his mountaintop moment with us. He said that God allowed him “to go up to the mountain,” and he “looked over” and was blessed to have “seen the Promised Land.” Although he had been through storms and he knew that he “may not get there” with us, he wanted us to know that we “will get to the promised land.” He was happy, not worried, and did not fear “any man” because “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Daina Ramey Berry is an historian at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, and Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia. Follow her on Twitter at @DainaRameyBerry.