April 3, 1968 was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, and much like an artist whose work is only truly seen after they’ve passed, so began the career of one of America’s greatest leaders. The groundwork for what would become Dr. King’s legacy had already been clearly laid in Montgomery with the bus boycotts, in the Selma voting rights movement to his famed march on Washington in 1963 where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. But truly great leaders have ways of speaking to the human condition both in life and most especially in death. They find ways to push us to wrestle with our collective conscience, they get us to see that our individual worlds are far bigger than we imagine, and they ask us to look beyond the present to a future that could be if we just believed.
Dr. King conjured a reality firm in his understanding but fanciful in ours. He saw the civil rights struggle in its totality, its ebbs and flows, its setbacks and ultimate victory. But isn’t that what “prophets” do? They stand in the present looking into some other world yet to come? They try to persuade us to hold on and assure us that what we’re seeing isn’t all there is, that it’ll get better.
In his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King takes his audience on a journey through history as uniquely seen by him.
From his final speech:
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.”
Dr. King used religious imagery to describe how he viewed history, its eventual arc towards justice and how he would more than likely not see it with us. (Prophets seldom bask in their accolades, they speak their truth and then they fade so their words can live on.) But these lines are particularly striking as we see a man moving fluidly through history to a point of its uncertainty to eventual justice:
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his 95 theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but ‘fear itself.’ 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 20th 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 I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.”
Although Dr. King’s appearance at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) was in support of local sanitation workers, the effect of the moment leaped out and across history’s pages. He saw the Promised Land as clearly as we see the here and now. It was all real to him then because he knew that sustained intelligent and humane resistance moves mountains. People can’t just look at the world and sigh, they have to be willing to give up some of the cynicism and believe a better world is possible.
It is the fate of some to walk along history’s periphery as it moves outward, where events swirl like an unpredictable vortex as they did in the ‘60s, and their full implications are impossible to fathom. It is here along these folds of probabilities not yet fully conceived of or realized that Dr. King walked freely. That’s part of King’s magic: He was able to help us as a society conceive of something reality clearly didn’t lend itself to in ‘68. He saw beyond the water cannons, biting dogs, and threat to life and limb to the “better angels of our natures.”
The last lines of his speech:
And 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!!!”
With those words ended the “Mountaintop” speech on the last day in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they also opened a window into a man who was resolved to allow events to occur even though the outcome surely meant his death.
Dr. King’s dream is like humanity’s relentless quest for perfection: We strive and continue towards it, even though we may never attain it, but it’s in the striving we become better people.