Martin Luther King’s finest hour, to my mind, was not the symbolic arrests, the rallies, the marches, the “I Have A Dream” speech, but the man’s parting words to the people of the Earth the night before he was felled by James Earl Ray’s bullet. We know the speech as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and even for people of little or no faith it has even now, far removed from the revolutionary ferment of the late ’60s, the power to move one to witness a wave of excitation ripple across their body. At least it does for me.
I first heard King’s speech on NPR nearly half a decade ago while in my car, driving like a maniac through the country. The speech calmed me, slowed my nerves and thoughts down like aural codeine. A loop of the speech echoing across time: this is what I wanted to hear for the rest of the day.
It is telling that schoolchildren are not introduced to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and merely know King as the man who uttered “I have a dream…,” for if children were assembled before their teachers and made to analyze the former, the good American patriots would want our teachers’ heads on spikes, because this speech is radical in its gaze. A gaze leveled at the vast inequalities generated by the power structures of government and business, not to mention race of course, and suggestions as to how to counter them through protest. Yes, Martin Luther King was a radical, cut from the same cloth as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.
While the speech, taken as a whole, is magnificent in its scope and specificity, it is its earliest passages that move me. In them, King visualizes for his audience the timeline of history reduced to significant epochs, seeing human progress in its totality, not through the narrow, microscopic view that plagues most Americans’ understanding of domestic and world events.
King opened the speech by talking of a “mental flight” through the fabric of space and time, seeing the march of historical events in timeless fashion. He would take “his flight through Egypt” thence to the Promised Land. He would take in Greece and Mount Olympus, and watch Plato, Socrates, Euripedes and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon “as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”
He would continue on to Rome, thence to the Renaissance, and on to Martin Luther’s nailing of the 99 Theses to the door of a Wittenburg church. To Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s daring-do in trying to resurrect a country nearly destroyed by greed for money and power, as well as by a lack of proper ethics and morals.
Then King comes to one of my favorite passages:
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.
And we might have passed out of some of the darkness with which King was concerned, but surely we have passed into another, deeper darkness, with a character that might have overwhelmed but surely wouldn’t have broken him.
In the last year of his life, King and others began planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address economic justice, not just for African-Americans but for all. He intended to march on Washington D.C. and demand that President Lyndon Baines Johnson help the poor get jobs, healthcare and a place to keep them warm and safe at night.
Weeks before the march was to launch, King was assassinated, but his wife and Jesse Jackson carried on with the plan anyway, ultimately establishing Resurrection City, a tent village of sorts, on the National Mall. What it would have been had King been there is certainly a point to ponder, but in many ways Resurrection City was the prototype of Occupy Wall Street.
And so it comes as no real surprise that Occupy Wall Street is planning a march on King’s birthday of January 15th. He is the spiritual father to the movement. An economic, political and social saint of sorts. Indeed, if he were here today, it’s practically certain that he would have supported the Occupy movement.
Demonstrators will assemble on the steps of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, organizers said today in an official statement. They will then march to Riverside Church to hold ”candlelight vigils to unite our world in a global movement for systemic change.”
The event website quotes King at his best, “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and say: ‘This is not just.’”
One parting thought: What Martin Luther King represents to me is the fight against the inability, or rather the disinterest of religions in truly helping the powerless, the poor and the good reclaim the world from its would-be kings here on Earth in the now, instead of in some eternal Kingdom of God, which is a slave mentality blessed by the Church, a philosophy to which King quite clearly did not supplicate himself.
Below is Part 1 of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Parts 2 and 3 can be found through the YouTube video.