"I've Been to the Mountaintop" Themes
The main themes in "I've Been to the Mountaintop" are unity, Christianity, and selflessness.
- The power of unity: King urges the Black community to stick together and embrace their collective power as a means to create change.
- Christian guidance: King's Christian principles inform his beliefs about our obligations to help one another, and his use of religious references throughout the speech reinforces the spiritual legitimacy of the protest movement.
- Embracing selflessness: Using the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, King urges his followers to adopt a mindset of "dangerous unselfishness" and come to the aid of their fellow man.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
The Power of Unity
King urges his audience to consider the social change the Black community might be able to achieve if they unite their efforts to form a collective front, noting how Pharaohs in ancient Egypt would keep their slaves in bondage by keeping them fighting amongst themselves. King believes that the Black community has a great power at their disposal, yet it's a power they can only use if they avoid divisive internal battles and focus instead on the ways they can come together.
This particular speech was given in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, a cause King knows many Black individuals don’t feel a sense of connection or commitment to. Those who were not directly impacted by the dire situation facing Black sanitation workers would find it all too easy to focus instead on their own families and their own daily struggles, placing the importance of self over the importance of their brothers and sisters who are fighting for change. King urges these individuals to reject complacency and remember that all of their futures are interconnected. Thus, he asks the community to “be concerned about your brother” by participating in marches and strikes, even if it is personally inconvenient.
King also references the idea of unity in his discussion of the economic power that the Black community could collectively leverage. Though they may be poor individually, together, they represent an economic force greater than the vast majority of countries in the world. By refusing in solidarity to spend their dollars at companies who had proven intolerant and unjust, the Black community could collectively force social change by removing a great source of revenue from those companies.
King was a Baptist minister whose Christian principles were deeply connected to the causes he fought so passionately for. While he does acknowledge the ways the American government has failed the Black community, he also issues a challenge to his fellow Black Americans to hold themselves to high standards of nonviolent behavior, as modeled by Christ. King also speaks directly to the pastors who are in attendance at this speech, urging them to follow the lead of Biblical men like Amos, who fought for justice. He also points to the selfishness of some ministers who are only concerned with themselves, instead praising those who have “relevant” ministries that are founded on true Christlike work.
King reminds the Christian community of the dangers of being too complacent on Earth while awaiting eternal glory. He points out that while it is important to consider the eventual rewards found in Heaven, it is also important to minister to the earthly needs of the Black community by making sure their physical well-being is secured. The “new Jerusalem” is important, King says, but working toward creating a “new Atlanta . . . new Philadelphia … [and] new Los Angeles” is urgent work that cannot not be dismissed. Ultimately, in urging his followers to refrain from both violence and complacency, King urges them to follow Christ’s principles in their march toward change.
King uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to demonstrate the importance of inconveniencing oneself for the needs of others. In this parable, a traveling man is beaten and robbed by thieves and left for dead on the side of the road to Jericho. Two men, one of them a priest, travel along a road and see an injured man. Rather than stop to help, they pass him by, wishing to avoid becoming involved in the situation. Finally, a Samaritan spots the injured man and offers assistance,...
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even taking the man for medical treatment and paying for it himself. Christ used this parable in response to a question from a lawyer who wondered which “neighbors” he was required to love; Christ explained that his followers should show mercy to anyone in need of it.
King uses this parable to demonstrate that getting involved in the suffering of others is often inconvenient. He acknowledges the danger inherent in walking along the metaphorical Jericho Road in the context of fighting for civil rights. Yet he also urges his audience to avoid focusing only on the personal dangers of this movement and the inconveniences they themselves might face if they stand up to prevent the suffering of others. They should instead consider what will happen to those who are laying along the metaphorical road of life, beaten and robbed, if they refuse to stop and help. Even as his audience gathers to support the needs of sanitation workers in Memphis, King asks them to leave their jobs and schools in order to participate in the upcoming march. He urges those present to cultivate a mindset of “dangerous unselfishness” that supports the needs of others, even if this particular injustice or strike is not one that directly affects them.