What Did He See From the Mountaintop?

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. didnít want to give a speech. He was in Memphis in support of a strike by sanitation workers. Exhausted, King had asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to fill in for him and speak at the Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple. But the crowd wanted King, and they demanded that he come to them. He did, and he delivered the "Iíve Been to the Mountaintop" speech; a prophecy of his departing and a summation of his vision. Some of his last words to the crowd were:

Well I donít know what will happen now. Weíve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesnít matter with me now. Because Iíve been to the mountaintop. And I donít mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But Iím not concerned about that now. I just want to do Godís will.

In an earlier speech, he said, "With this faith, I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair." The horrors he witnessed on his way up the mountain were hideous blows, black and white images seared in our nationís collective conscience. How could these experiences not become part and parcel of who he was? He knew the stark truth of human brutality, and carried that weight. Heíd seen white men, their faces contorted with ugly hatred, turning fire hoses on children. Thereíd been over 500 lynchings in Mississippi alone over the years. He saw white officials bearing down with clubs, police dogs, and tear gas on peaceful black and white marchers in Alabama. His home was bombed. Heíd been stabbed. He eulogized four little black girls, killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson waffled in their support of civil rights and legislated integration.

Martin Luther King was a pastor, and the mountaintop has Biblical meaning. God resides somewhere around the mountaintop. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses "come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain." Isaiah 2 says that the mountain of the Lordís house will be established at the highest of the mountains. And on that mountain, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." The promised land was a sacred place of justice, safety, and peace.

When Rev. King presented himself on the mountaintop, what did he see?

I imagine that from the distance of the mountaintop, he saw it all -- the horrors and the victories. He had played a part in the integration of public transportation systems, stores, restaurants, and schools all through the south. In 1964, he was Time magazineís man of the year and he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He lived to hear President Lyndon Johnson say the anthem of the Civil Rights movement "We shall overcome" on national TV. He saw the enactment of the Voting Rights Bill in 1965. While segregation may never leave us, he lived to see it lose legal sanction.

He was a beautiful dreamer and his dream was our founding fatherís dream, "That all men are created equal."

Kingís challenge to black America was to believe that and to fight for it. His challenge to white America was to live it, legislate it, enforce it, insist on it, and yes, to believe it.

The tide was turning. He saw where his people had been, and where they would go.

He may have felt the clear air where few have gone. And he was alone. I hope that he experienced the fulfillment of knowing that heíd done his earthly work. Like his heroes, Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi, he held to the philosophy of pacifism and forgiveness. Iíd like to think that the message to him on the mountaintop was "Well done, well done, well done."

The difficult days are with us still. If we long to hear what Martin Luther King would have to say about war, or drafting young economically disadvantaged men to fight our wars, or the distance between the rich and the poor, or corporate greed, we donít have to wonder. His speeches are readily available on the internet, and they are as brilliant and relevant today as when first spoken.

Reverend King, Iím glad that you were born. Your eloquent, brave voice is missed. You ask us to be better. We celebrate your birth, your life, and the gift of your legacy.

For more information about Martin Luther King Jr.:

On the web:

  1. The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project
  2. The King Center
  3. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

Books:

  1. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., by Martin Luther King Jr., and Clayborne Carson (Editor)
  2. A Call to Conscience -- The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by Martin Luther King Jr., Clayborne Carson (Editor), Kris Shepard (Editor)
  3. A Knock at Midnight, by Martin Luther King Jr., Peter Holloran (Editor), Clayborne Carson (Editor)

ALL STORIES

:: One By One By One
:: One Bullet
:: In Mom's Eyes
:: Luck
:: A Sea of Sound
:: Diary of a Confetti Engineer
:: What Did He See From the Mountaintop?
:: Faces of a Plague
:: What turns compassion into action?
:: Today Marks the Beginning

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