Like many observers, I have read or listened to Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech enough to conclude that when he delivered that address on April 3, 1968, he sensed that the end of his life was near.
Yes, today is the federal holiday where we celebrate King’s life, but it was his death at the far too young age of 39 that propelled him from “Negro agitator” in the minds of his enemies, to now having his words parsed for the political whims of those very enemies who despised him–and their ideological descendants who praise him one moment, only to work to destroy what he stood for the next.
In arguably his second most famous speech (1963’s “I Have a Dream” being first), King alternated between sounding like a Classics/Humanities professor and the classically trained Baptist minister that he was, as he took his listeners on a rhetorical trip from Ancient Egypt all the way through the sanitation worker strike that beckoned him to the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tennessee that fateful April in ’68. Toward the end of the sermon, King launched into what can only be described as his own eulogy, one given with amazing prescience literally hours before his demise. King laconically recounted a prior attempt on his life where he was stabbed by a mentally ill woman in New York early in his rise to prominence, and he reminds the crowd of all of the seminal Civil Rights Movement events that he would have missed had he died nearly a decade earlier. Then, in a captivating finale that seemed more stream of consciousness than formal address, King concluded with the words that even the most casual student of Black history has heard, which include: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!”
Even reading his words after pasting them into the body of this essay chokes me up and compels me to give a moment of pause in deference to a life that ended far too soon. King, only 39 years old at the time of his death, left a wife a four small children to mourn his passing, as shown below.
Now, “why” Dr. King was assassinated has always fascinated me far more than the rote recitation of “who” the justice system says killed him; James Earl Ray, much like President John F. Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, was branded a “lone gunman” and sentenced to 99 years in prison for allegedly killing King.
Lest we forget, however, who FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was, and what his Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was, and how it was designed to infiltrate and disrupt Black civil rights organizations. Understanding Hoover and his role as the law enforcement gatekeeper for America’s wealthy White elite and the politicians who did their bidding, I have always suspected that the “why” had far more to do with King’s metamorphosis from a Black civil rights leader to an advocate for the poorer classes regardless of race. Toward the end of his life, King’s speeches and writings began to squarely focus upon criticizing the motives of wealthy Robber Barons, as he denounced the Vietnam War as a tool for said Barons to further enrich themselves through the military industrial complex.
If you consider for a moment that when King marched and demanded civil rights in the most racist areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia et al and was never killed, but once he threatened the financial status quo, his life was summarily ended, then it is easy to conclude that a potential class struggle was not going to end well for those at the vanguard of the lower economic classes like King.
As such, the notion of class struggle informs what I sense that a meeting between Dr. King and President Donald Trump would have looked like. History teachers rarely cover the parts of his “Mountaintop” address where King admonished his mostly black audience to “take your money out of the (white owned) banks downtown and deposit your money in (black owned) Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
Indeed, the same man who fought to integrate public accommodations, schools and for the franchise was speaking of Black cooperative economics and what could be termed as a radical redistribution of wealth.
Now, most of Trump’s supporters suggested time and again during the 2016 election that what attracted them to him was the fact that he is a “business man” who would help the American economy grow even further than it had under President Barack Obama. After Trump’s stunning win, the paucity of black celebrity figures who were granted an audience with him during the transition period all suggested that Trump “seemed” sincere about economic opportunities for African-Americans. Trump’s maddening penchant for using the article “the” before Blacks and African Americans aside, both during the transition and his first year in office, Trump’s rhetoric, thus far, has not been matched by the record or any cogent plans.
Considering Trump’s record, I imagine that had he lived, Dr. King would address the following with the 45th POTUS:
- Trump’s persistent painting of “the Black community” with a broad racist brush where he routinely implies that “all” blacks have to dodge bullets just to buy gas or a loaf of bread at the local convenience store, which is patently false;
- Trump’s persistent smearing of Muslims and advocacy of travel bans in predominantly Muslim nations, bans that detrimentally impact professors and students at major universities across America;
- Trump’s complete lack of specifics in his so-called Contract with Black America as to “how” to ameliorate the wage and unemployment gap that still exists between blacks and whites;
- Trump’s opposition to wage increases and his failure to address the rise of automation and how the same is going to place even more Americans out of work. King probably would question how Trump can do photo ops with coal miners and other factory workers knowing full well that the coal industry will continue to wane as cleaner sources of energy production rise, and that the jobs lost through automation shan’t be returning either.
- Blast Trump’s selection of Jefferson Beauregard Session as Attorney General and the immediate roll back of Obama era criminal justice reforms. Lest we forget that Sessions, named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, was opposed in 1986 by King’s wife, Coretta, who questioned Sessions’ reported sympathy towards the Ku Klux Klan and his harassment of black employees in his U.S. Attorney’s Office. King might ask how a man with such a checkered past that his judicial nomination was iced back in ’86, could be trusted to lead a department responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in an era in which unarmed blacks are being killed by law enforcement at alarming rates, and over racial, sexual and religious discrimination are on the rise across America;
- King likely would question the choice of Ben Carson, a medical doctor with no public policy experience whatsoever, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. King probably would suggest, as I have before, that Trump’s selection of such a dilettante betrays his indifference to the work of that agency in improving the economic prospects of poor people across America;
- King probably would question the “Trumpcare” fiasco, and ask how the president was so willing to sign a bill that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office suggested would force nearly 25 million Americans off of insurance rolls while increasing premium costs for nearly 14 million more, all the while increasing profits for insurance companies by multiple billions of dollars;
- King likely would tell Trump that his personal attacks via Twitter are often petty, racist, bigoted and completely unbecoming of the leader of the free world and a supposed Christian. King would take Trump to task for exclaiming that there were “many good people” among the white supremacist curs who attacked Blacks and others in Charlottesville last August. Ditto for insinuating that Nigerians “live in huts,” that “Haitians have AIDS,” or that immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America hail from “Shit-hole nations.” King probably would remind Trump of how he wrote most of his seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on jail toilet paper after Bull Connor et al shut off his supplies to try and shut him up, a move not much unlike Trump’s attempts to shut up press organizations that he deems a threat.
To conclude, something tells me that King would have needed far more than the five minutes Trump seems to give black entertainers and activists like Steve Harvey, Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, Kanye, Floyd Mayweather, his son Martin III, and HBCU presidents. Something tells me that King would have emerged from a Trump meeting solemn and sincere, not grinning broadly and overly optimistic based on a brief audience like many so-called Black leaders seeking to curry the oft unpredictable Trump’s favor.
Why? It is because King knew from his own dealings with Democrats like the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson, and Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960, that politicians can change their positions with the wind and that the only way to ensure that the collective interests of Blacks and the poor of all races are addressed is through social activism, cooperative economics, and targeted voting. Indeed, 49 years ago, King showed the blueprint for success in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and in memory of his birth, life and untimely death, it is up to us to follow it when dealing Trump, his Republican dominated Congress, and even Democrats like the Clintons who far too often fall in line with the wealthy White elite, too, when it suits their political interests.