Seton Hall University

Inside the Core this Week: Martin Luther King Jr.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. Giving a SpeechThis week almost all Core I classes are reading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous last speech, his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech, given on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. King gave the speech at Mason Temple (home of the Church of God in Christ, in Memphis, Tennessee). King had come to Memphis in support of a sanitation workers' strike, and he was not feeling well (having a sore throat). A violent thunder storm was beating on the city when he came to the church, and there had been death threats against him. Despite all of these potential hindrances, King rose to the heights of his ability to deliver a powerful and, to this day, incredibly moving sermon. Students in Core I both read and listen to the speech on audio.

What are they reading/hearing? After warmly thanking Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of King's closest friends, who had introduced him and making some remarks about how the world is moving toward greater freedom, he broke into an imaginary flight across time, visiting various scenes and places, and pondering if he would have preferred to have lived in one of these particular settings. Several times and situations refer to other readings in Core I, for example, King talks of being with Moses at the Red Sea (a scene from Exodus, required reading for the course and, as it turns out, a text offering the prevailing metaphor for the last part of the speech). He mentions an imaginary visit to Greece, naming Socrates and Aristophanes, figures important to the Plato readings in Core I. He talks of visiting ancient Rome, the setting for the New Testament, another required reading in Core I. He moves in imagination through the Renaissance and Reformation, through the Civil War, and finally comes to his own time, the latter half of the twentieth century.

King imagines himself saying to God, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy." He remarks on the strangeness of the choice, given all the troubles of the world at that time (similar to troubles today in many ways). But the enormous prevalence of the struggle to be free around the globe causes him to choose this moment. Contrasting past acquiescence of African Americans with the strength of the protests he had been leading, he says, "We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world." Encouraging his hearers to use economic power to enforce their demands, he comments on the power of African Americans to withhold their business as a part of their struggle for justice. As a group, he says, they are richer than most nations. They can have economic power, by removing their business from racist companies, for example. This targeted action, along with the kind of rightful and non-violent protests he was leading, would, inevitably he argues, lead to victory.

He particularly celebrates the role of the preacher, as he himself was a Baptist preacher since his teenage years, and most of the other leaders in the civil rights movement were preachers as well. He speaks of the fire in a preacher's heart that compels him (or her) to speak, like the prophets of old, particularly in the face of injustice. Referring to one of the Hebrew prophets, King says, "Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, 'When God speaks who can but prophesy? Again with Amos, 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me," and he's anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.'" Referencing Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan, who (King notes) was of a different race from the man he helps, he encourages in his followers "a dangerous kind of unselfishness" that puts the needs of others before even one's own fear of personal harm. Of course, this is exactly what King was personally practicing at that moment.

The last part of King's speech is the most well-known and perhaps the most powerful part of it, though it is difficult to pick a single part of his speech for that description. As if he knew he was facing his last moments, as if speaking prophetically, he cast himself in the position of Moses, who led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but did not get to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. A video clip of this portion of the speech survives, and King looks moved himself, almost to tears. He says, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain." Rising to a crescendo, King ends the speech affirming several things – though he may not be there for it, his people will "get to the Promised Land," that he is "happy tonight" and "not fearing any man," culminating in a phrase the sums up the source of his enormous power – "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." Embraced by his followers King returned to the Lorraine Hotel, where he was killed the following day.

This is the first year we are using this text in Core I, which I am very happy was approved last year as a requirement for the course. It is supplemented in Core I by several optional texts – newspaper articles, as well as an essay by Fr. Bryan Massingale of Fordham on Race and Faith. On the fiftieth anniversary year of King's assassination, we remember his final speech as an incredible piece of oratory, but – most importantly – a statement of his spiritual legacy.

Categories: Education , Nation and World

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  • Nancy Enright
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