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King’s Mountaintop, Our Valley

By August 29, 2013 4 Comments

I know I promised to finish up some reflections on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Calvinism this week, but yesterday’s 50th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington put that leader and his rhetoric on my plate. “Rhetoric” sometimes has a bad name, but I mean by it just the opposite. Maybe what my 20-something son was getting at last night in remarking about the power of King’s cadences and how they elevated its substance. “I Have a Dream” has been analyzed well beyond my power to add or detract anything of note here, so I’m going to turn to another one of his speeches that has always struck me as equal to the “Dream” but is far less familiar. That is “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which King delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated.

I don’t have space to excerpt much of the text here. You can read it in full at Better yet, watch this video of the whole thing and ponder his shifts in pace and tone, in pitch and volume: At the very least, check out the peroration, two and a half minutes of sheer inspiration in the speaking, and in the listening:

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” features King’s classic segues between—and sometimes outright blends—of Christianity and American civil religion. This 3rd of April 1968 might have been the last time someone on the progressive side of American politics brought the crowd to its feet with a ringing quotation from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Tet Offensive had happened in Vietnam just three months before, and we’ve been living in a different age ever since. We’ve all learned to be wary of the nation-state, to be bold and prophetic in speaking truth to power, and to keep our religion clean. It’s worth pondering how King could play it differently, and why.

The genius of the address to me is King’s repeated pattern of ascent and descent: from the broadest panorama of global affairs to the tightest personal close-up of that knife-point resting at the edge of his aorta. Having just conducted a street-level tour of some possible local targets to boycott, King soars back up to the level of philosophical principle, that of “dangerous unselfishness,” only to cinch the lesson with Jesus’ supreme story about defying boycotts, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The most remarkable contrast of all might lie between the circumstances of King’s speech and his choice of opening. King had come to Memphis to intervene in a strike of (mostly black) sanitation workers—and starts off with an imaginary grand tour of world history. If God had offered me the choice of any age in which to live, he begins, I would have passed passed by the pyramids of Egypt and the glories of Greece and Rome, the achievements of the Renaissance and my own name-sake’s leadership of the Reformation, a “vacillating president” signing the Emancipation Proclamation and another calling down hope against fear at the depths of the Great Depression. I would have passed them all by in order to be here tonight with you, King proclaims, because we live in a momentous age with issues of utmost importance at stake—issues of war and peace, race and justice, human rights and inhuman wrongs. And all these are joined right here, right now, in the streets of Memphis. I may stand at the mountaintop, King’s speech concludes, but you garbage collectors, the lowliest of the low, live on the cutting edge of world history, and you—we—have at our back the fairest promise of the nation and the deepest promises of God.

We cannot read or watch King’s “Mountaintop” speech without knowing what happened the next day. So perhaps it’s our projection that reads his closing words as self-aware prophecy, that sees fatigue and anxiety in the speaker’s face throughout. Maybe, maybe not. What we cannot miss are the faith, hope, courage, and determination in the words and in the man delivering them. Exactly the qualities we miss so much in the politics and aspirations of our own time, and in ourselves. Who today in the church, the nation, the world voices a living hope that names names but does not vilify, that points out the doors of promise without keeping any out?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    That speech always calls me to repentance, unlike the I Have a Dream. Both speeches were bevindelijk, but the Memphis speech, right, is ascent and descent, a crashing down and a being lifted up. Did God cry when Moses died, when God buried Moses, when God dug the grave and laid his body down, and say a few appropriate words, and turn around and go back home?

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    I posted a link to this blog post for my First Year Seminar students as they prepare their first speech of the semester! Thanks!

  • Michael Borgert says:


    Thanks for your reflections. I often remember your characterization of MLK "Mountaintop" and Lincoln's "Second Inaugural" as America's greatest sermons…particularly in light of what happened to each in the aftermath.

    On a related note, this piece from the Christian Century also reflecting on the anniversary of "I Have A Dream" is worth the read is at the link below, though not nearly so uplifting.

    Grace and Peace,
    Michael Borgert

  • Richard Rienstra says:

    James Bratt:

    Thanks for calling attention to MLK's great sermon. He delivered at the Mason Temple which is like an athletic facility. I was there several times for meetings of the Convocation of the Church of God in Christ when I worked for Bishop Nathaniel Wells of COGIC in his affordable housing efforts. I notice the "church" was not full as it is the "headquarters" for COGIC, not really a church congregation. The sparse crowd (maybe due to lack of zeal by local pastors those "who spend all those hours in their office" I think is a direct reference to them) might have been the occasion for MLK's remarks about the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    Here are those remarks from MLK:

    "Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

    But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

    That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question."

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