On April 3rd, 1968, the evening before his untimely death, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech before a crowd of 2,000 people gathered at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.

Second only to his “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s mountaintop address reveals his most mature reflections on the central themes of the movement. This is the first in a series of brief articles exploring selected themes from the speech and their ongoing relevance for today’s social situation. The first theme is perseverance under pressure.

A Dark Memphis Night

In order to truly appreciate the herculean effort it took to deliver the Mountaintop speech, we must first consider the events preceding that night in Memphis.

At the urging of Rev. James Lawson, King had come to Memphis weeks before to support the city’s 1,300 Black sanitation workers protesting for safer working conditions and higher wages. He planned to lead a non-violent march through the city in the hopes that a victory in Memphis might prove helpful to the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign, a larger demonstration planned for Washington later that year. But King’s stay in Memphis was fraught with difficulties.

Within minutes, the mass march devolved into violence when a group of young militants (known as “the Invaders”) took the occasion to attempt a riot. Unable to restore order, King’s colleagues quickly whisked him away to the safe confines of his hotel room, a move that caused King’s critics to doubt his ongoing relevance and influence as a national leader. In the ensuing chaos, Memphis police peppered the street with gunfire, killing sixteen-year-old Larry Payne.

Mayor Henry Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4000 national guard troops to help enforce a court-ordered injunction against further protests. It was the first and only time that King led a march that ended in violence, and a boy had been killed in the process. King was devastated. To make matters worse, he had been informed by unknown sources that certain threats against his own life could be realized any day. King was keenly aware that he would likely be killed if he remained in Memphis.

Getting to the Mountaintop

Deeply depressed, King left the city headed to Atlanta uncertain whether he would ever return or whether he could continue to carry the burden of the movement. It was in this low state that King somehow found the strength to return to Memphis. On April 3rd, he reluctantly made his way through a torrential downpour toward the crowd gathered at Mason Temple Church. Although King was visibly shaken, he pressed on, committing himself to stand for justice and with the poor and marginalized no matter the cost.

The key to King’s continued commitment was in his confidence that God was at work through the movement and that social justice and righteousness would ultimately prevail. 

Drawing on Moses’ ascent atop Mount Nebo and panoramic view of the promised land (Deuteronomy 32:49), King explained in now immortal words:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to 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.”

Here, King is talking about the beloved community, the eschatological (end times) vision of God’s diverse people from every tribe, nation, and tongue living in perfect unity, justice, righteousness, and peace. Against great odds, this vision empowered King to continue fighting for racial and economic justice.

Final Destination

I’d argue that this same vision is vital for today. Micah 4 foretells of a glorious day in which the diverse peoples of the world will stream to the Mountain of the Lord. On that day, the Lord himself will unify an otherwise divided people and ensure the triumph of his justice, righteousness, and peace among them. Micah 4:3 says:

“He shall judge between many peoples,

and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This vision of the beloved community does not cause us to be acquiescent or compliant in the face of injustice. Rather it serves as an eschatological guiding light, instructing us in how to live among one another today. The “not yet” of God’s future makes its claim on how we live today. As pilgrims, our final destination determines how we handle the journey.

This kind of vision is the only hope for a continued commitment to justice in the face of great opposition. The mounting tide of political rhetoric and practices against freedom and justice for all can be discouraging. Mass incarceration, police brutality, rampant poverty, failing schools, and disparities in healthcare and housing among the ethnic minorities can cause the bravest of freedom fighters to shrink back in despair. Atheistic humanists such as Dr. Anthony Pinn and Ta-Nehisi Coates have proposed we should find ultimate meaning in the struggle itself. This, they think, should be enough to carry freedom fighters through.

But travelers get weary of walking unless they know where they are headed and are confident they will reach their final destination. God has set our final destination before us. He has given his people some joy on the other side of our respective crosses. He calls us to live today in light of the joy that will be ours tomorrow.

Micah ends this vision with a call to action:

“For all the peoples walk

each in the name of its god,

but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God

forever and ever.”

The world is held captive to the idols of the day. Some people walk in the name of racial supremacy, but we must walk in the name of the Lord our God. Some people walk in the name of political expediency, but we must walk in the name of our God. Some people walk in the name of nationalism, consumerism, and ethnocentrism but we must walk in the name of the Lord our God.  This is a call to live on, fight on, and march on, not just temporarily, but forever and ever in light of the hope that we will get to the promised land.