"I've Been to the Mountaintop" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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"I've Been to the Mountaintop" Summary

Delivered on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address was his final public speech.

  • King delivered these remarks in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of Black sanitation workers who were striking over discriminatory and unsafe working conditions.
  • Urging solidarity and selflessness, King asks the Black community to leverage their collective social and economic power to achieve nonviolent social change.
  • Speaking presciently about the possibility of his own death, King says that he has seen the promised land and knows Black Americans will soon reach it—even if he's not there with them.

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this address in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. He was assassinated the following day.

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King opens by noting the transformative energy that has awakened in Memphis and in the larger world. He considers the possibilities of this energy before him and then notes that if God granted him the ability to exist in any time period in history, he would first survey the history of the world before making his choice. He envisions seeing Plato and Aristotle assembling around the Parthenon. He considers the wonders of the Roman Empire and then the cultural magnificence of the Renaissance. He imagines watching Martin Luther nail his ninety-five theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg and the possibility of standing by as Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet, King says, all of these glorious moments in world history pale in significance to the moment he is witnessing now. At this moment, in the middle of the twentieth century, people around the world have begun to rise up, demanding freedom and equality for everyone. People have talked about existing in peace for many years, but King declares that this particular moment in history represents a key crossroads toward this goal: people must choose “nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Black people are not interested in negative protests, King says, and they are not willing to engage in negative arguments. Instead, they are determined to be treated as people and claim the inheritance that God promises to all his children. However, King believes that change will come only if the Black community commits to organizing their efforts in specific ways. He urges his audience to “stay together.” Unity helped the Egyptian slaves free themselves from bondage, and King observes that there is a similar and remarkable power in a collective Black voice, so long as the movement keeps focus and attention on the key issue: injustice. The city of Memphis has proven itself unfair and dishonest in its treatment of sanitation workers, and King is adamant about the need to keep focus on the workers’ strike and not on instances of “window-breaking,” which the press likes to focus on instead.

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Memphis sanitation workers are on strike because their working conditions leave them suffering and facing hunger, yet King promises that if they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of justice, “there [will be] no stopping point short of victory.” The movement's success is inevitable, King says, and he remains steadfast in his resolve to protest, even if faced with dogs and fire hoses (tactics protestors had already encountered at past marches for justice). Rather than allowing themselves to be defeated by the water from hoses, King declares that the water will be a metaphorical baptism, reminding the protesters of their spiritual purpose. King plans to overcome resistance by visualizing freedom and power. He reflects on the times when protests have led to arrests and how the protesters chose to sing “We Shall Overcome” en route to the prison. This spirit of perseverance, King says, transformed their struggles in Birmingham, allowing them to emerge victorious. He is confident the same can happen in Memphis.

King then refers to an injunction against the group of protesters. He reminds his supporters that this is unconstitutional, for they do not live in China, Russia, nor any other totalitarian country. They live in the United States of America, where every person is guaranteed the privileges of freedom: the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, and the freedom of assembly. King refuses to let police or an injunction to prevent him from claiming the destiny he has been promised as an American citizen.

Next, King thanks the pastors who have shown up to support the efforts in Memphis. He reminds them that pastors must be like Amos, demanding for “justice [to] roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," but they must also be like Jesus, who concerned himself with the welfare of the poor. King points to the shortcomings of some clergy members who encourage Black people to find contentment in the “white robes” they will one day wear in Heaven, pointing out that people also need clothes to wear on Earth. King acknowledges that it is admirable to await the eventual land of “milk and honey”; however, one must show concern for those on Earth who cannot eat three square meals a day.

Though the protesters are peaceful, King says, they are not without force. Indeed, the economic pressure that the Black community can collectively exert is a a force to be reckoned with. King points out that although they consider themselves a poor people, collectively they have more riches than nearly all nations in the rest of the world. The Black community earns a collective thirty billion dollars a year of income, which King says they must leverage to their advantage. Instead of arguing or acting out, King asks that people use their economic influence and simply stop supporting companies—like Coca-Cola, Sealtest milk, and Wonder Bread—who have proven unfair in their hiring policies. Local, Black-owned banks must also be supported, and King recommends that his followers take their savings out of banks downtown and instead invest in the Black-owned Tri-State Bank.

The struggle ahead will be long, but King encourages his audience not to stop until their work for justice is finished. This sort of sustained effort can only happen when people concern themselves with each other, even if they themselves are not involved in any particular strike. Supporting the collective is vital; they will either “go up together, or . . . go down together.” To this end, King asks that his audience members cultivate a kind of “dangerous unselfishness” that places the needs of others ahead of the comforts of oneself. Evoking the parable of the Samaritan on the Jericho Road, King asks his audience to willingly leave their own comfort zones and take on personal risks to save others.

King concludes by recalling a time when he nearly died, reflecting with gratitude on all that he has seen accomplished since. Because he survived, he has been able to witness the beginnings of a new dream for America. King acknowledges that there are “sick white brothers” in Memphis who have threatened violence against him, and he doesn’t know with certainty how it will all play out. Yet King says he doesn’t fear death: “it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” His goal is not to live a long life but to do God's will and to turn the tide of injustice. King concludes by saying he has seen the promised land, a future filled with possibilities and freedom, and he knows that Black America will reach this promised land, even if he isn’t there to see it himself.

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