Sadly, this Friday marks the 40th anniversary of a world-changing day—the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It is hard to believe that it has been four decades now! I can still remember the day well, and exactly where I was, and how I learned. One of my African American undergraduates at the University of California called to tell me on the phone. I can still feel my and his pain as we talked, and the sense of national despair that soon developed in many areas, like it was just yesterday.
The day before he was killed, Dr. King gave one of the great speeches ever given by an American, one called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It was given on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple (Church of God) in Memphis, Tennessee. Early in this amazing speech on behalf of striking garbage workers, Dr. King speaks in terms that are still quite relevant today:
The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. . . . But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. . . . 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 nation is still very sick with racial oppression. There is still trouble and confusion, yet people are hopeful and rising up across the globe to improve their conditions, seeking still to be free of racism, gender oppression, and class oppression.
Soon in his speech, Dr. King adds historical and philosophical reflections for which, even as a young man, he was deservedly famous:
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are 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. . . . 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.
He was alluding to the Vietnam war, as well as struggles against racial and class oppression. He had become very critical of what imperialistic war, and had lost supporters, especially in the white elites. Indeed, he may have been assassinated because of these views as much as for his black liberation views. His views speak very much to our time, for once again we have a president, with a war-mongering entourage, who decided to solve (what now we know were fictional) problems overseas by means of violence. Yet, violence usually does not work, as Dr. King constantly reminds us. It rebounds and tends to trigger yet more violence.
Dr. King continues by speaking of the world’s human rights revolution, the revolution for better living conditions for the world’s oppressed:
If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis. . . . 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.
He then proceeds to note that there will be yet more Memphis marches to show the world that 1,300 of “God’s children” are suffering and hungry. King had come to see that fighting racism meant fighting its impact and consequences in many areas, such as in the low wages for US occupations in which workers of color, such as African Americans, are concentrated, like the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers.
After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, King concludes with these rather chilling and far-seeing words, which seem to indicate he felt death in the air:
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. . . . Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!