“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Forty-two years ago, on a stormy night in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech — what was to become his final public address — by invoking the opening line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Speaking before an impassioned crowd at the Mason Temple, Dr. King ended his oratorical career by harkening back to the Civil War, an era when, much like the 1960s, the issues surrounding civil rights threatened to dismantle our nation. While King’s assassination the next day left the country speechless, his words from the night before still ring true today, providing both guidance and inspiration by reminding us of the ideals and morals upon which our country stands.
Though Dr. King lived to see some of the fruits of his labor (Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), the year 1968 marked a time of continued racial tensions and inexcusable hate crimes. Calling upon the United States to “be true to what [is] said on paper,” Dr. King claimed that the racism and degradation found locally were more characteristic of “China, or even Russia, or any other totalitarian society” than of a nation with “basic First Amendment privileges.” Refusing to let the discriminatory practices of our judicial system stifle the fight for equality, Dr. King asked for a greater maintenance of fidelity to our constitution, stating that, “the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.” While American minorities today enjoy more of the basic freedoms than were afforded to their forbearers decades or centuries ago, it is important to remember not only that racism is a bitter memory of our far-too-recent history, but also that it remains a living reality. Forms of both direct and indirect discrimination continue to mar one of the fundamental tenets of our country’s ethos — the notion that all men are created equal.
For those of you who have never listened to Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” it’s well worth the 30-minute investment. Though it has an uplifting message, soaring rhetoric and a mesmerizing cadence, it is the end of the speech that makes your heart race. Prophetic in nature, the closing of Dr. King’s final sermon is both frightening and awe-inspiring. Having received bomb threats both before and upon his arrival to Memphis, Dr. King addressed the audience about the possibility of his untimely death. Here is his final paragraph:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. 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. 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.”
Like Moses, the leader of the wandering Israelites, Dr. King shepherded a wandering, struggling people into a promised land. Also in kind with the prophet, Dr. King passed away shortly before the journey ended. Though the corporeal Dr. King is no longer with us, his spirit, words, hope, faith, and unending optimism live on as strong today as they did 42 years ago on a stormy night in Memphis, Tenn.
Joel Sircus is a freshman in Trumbull College.