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 we celebrate King’s birth, 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, to 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 death. 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.
In one of the most riveting segments of the Mountaintop speech, Dr. King admonished his 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.
You see, Dr. King knew from his own dealings with Democrats like President John and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson, as well as with Republican presidential candidate (and future President) Richard Nixon in 1960, that politicians can change their positions with the wind. As such, King knew 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, 51 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 even unto this present age.