The Path to the Promised Land


The assurance that King has that, despite the present darkness, the sun will rise in the morning, is so tangible and comforting that it extends far beyond the Civil Rights movement and into our everyday lives. He concludes his speech with such a power and confidence that we should all strive to live by: “Well I don’t really know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

Rachel McCord, Staff Writer

“But I know somehow, that only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.” Martin Luther King delivered these famous words on April 3, 1968 in his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He was assassinated the next day. While King delivered many speeches, and many could deem it a coincidence, I do not believe it was a coincidence that it was this particular speech that King delivered the day before his untimely death. This speech provides hope for those working toward his cause, even in his absence.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike began in February of 1968 and related to the discrimination and poor treatment of black factory workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It was toward this movement that King wrote his speech “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”; however, after reading it I have realized that its significance goes much farther than this one incident, or even than the Civil Rights Movement. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is a cry for change in the midst of injustice as well as the promise that change will occur.

One of the key points that King stresses in his speech is unity. “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves out of slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.” A house divided against itself cannot stand, and King stressed the importance of joining together, in peaceful protest, for justice. Not only does this apply to the Civil Rights Movement but to any area of injustice. Any group of people united in a goal, dream, or belief should not allow minor differences to destroy their relationships and thus ruin any chances of accomplishing their goal. If we cannot learn to unite with each other despite our differences, then no matter how well put together or motivated we may be for change, we will never accomplish anything.

Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, was well known for his mistreatment of protesters. He would send out dogs and turn fire hoses on anyone protesting, including women and children: “Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the kind of physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.” The fire that King refers to, that no water can extinguish, is the desire and drive within the hearts of those who hate injustice and long for equality. King believed that, if life is not dictated by a faith or dream that we would die for, life is not worth the living: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” In order to reach a goal, it must be more than just a point on a checklist or an ideal thought in the back of our minds; it must be a part of our hearts and the very air that we breathe.

Another major point that King makes is ensuring that we know what our goal is. While this may seem obvious, too many times in history we have become distracted by our dislike of the actions of others that we begin to target our fight against the people and not the actions or ideas of those people. Blind hurt can lead to hate if we do not realize that our fight is against the crime and not the criminal. It is our duty to fight for love, justice and equality, not belittle those who are unjust or hateful. While our words, protests and actions may affect the “criminals,” we should always guard our intentions and be sure that the root of our passion is against the action and not the person.

“It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.” While the favor and blessings of God are real, too many times, people and preachers alike become consumed in prosperity beliefs. We become consumed with our current blessings and the only comfort we offer others for their misfortune is the promise of hope in eternity. While this is the truth, too often our words are used to mask the apathy of our actions. We preach prosperity to cover up our hesitance to give to the needy, clothe the naked and fight for the mistreated. This ties into yet another of King’s main points: selflessness. He retells Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help the man who had been robbed and beaten. “Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.” In order to achieve a goal or reach a dream, we must not forget the most vulnerable in a situation, even if it means giving something up, or stepping out of our comfort zone.

King stresses the importance of living our lives not to find comfort but to find purpose. He realized the importance of doing God’s will despite the consequences or risks and of looking at the big picture as opposed to the painful moments.

King set a wonderful example for not only those in the Civil Rights Movement but for any of us who believe in something and are willing to fight for justice. I am sure that, after his assassination on April 4, 1968, many thought back to the words he had so bravely spoken only the day before: “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 allowing me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”