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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 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm. Better yet, watch this video of the whole thing and ponder his shifts in pace and tone, in pitch and volume: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixfwGLxRJU8. At the very least, check out the peroration, two and a half minutes of sheer inspiration in the speaking, and in the listening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p96wKQk2-Io.
“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?