"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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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.

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....

(The entire section contains 1141 words.)

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