I Have Been to the Mountaintop by Jonas Cox

Good Morning.  This morning I have prepared to present Martin Luther King’s Speech “I have been to the Mountaintop.”  He delivered this speech to a Memphis, Tennessee, audience on April 3rd 1968.  I have also prepared some questions for us to ponder.  More on that later.

King had traveled to Memphis to take part in a protest for the almost exclusively black sanitation workers of the city who he believed were being treated unfairly in their contract negotiation.  I have severely cut his words so that I could fit this 45-minute speech into a Quaker sermon time slot.  I hope that I have captured the essence of what he was trying to say.  I invite you to read or listen to the speech in it entirety by searching it out on line.

King’s words:

If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt across the Red Sea, through the wilderness toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

King goes on the mention the Greeks, Romans, the renaissance era, His name sake, Martin Luther’s list of ninety-five theses nailed to the Wittenberg door, Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the depression era and FDR’s bold claim “that we have nothing to fear but fear itself”.

Each time he described a period he repeated the phrase I wouldn’t stop there.  He then goes on to say:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Martin continues: 

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them, now.

Men, for years have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
What does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a  formula He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.  whenever the slaves get together, they cannot hold the slaves in slavery. So let us maintain unity.

Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice.  we’ve got to keep attention on that and force everybody to see that there are hundreds of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point,  short of victory.

In this next paragraphs King references Bull Connor, For those of you who don’t know Bull Connor He was in charge of both the police and the fire departments in Birmingham Alabama and fought the civil rights movement using all the power of his office.

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”

Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on,” but we knew water couldn’t stop us, and we would look at it, and go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.”

And we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

Then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that.

We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that.  But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for what is right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

King then thanks the preachers who have joined the cause and brings up a critical point about a focus of working here against injustice instead of focusing on the afterlife.

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets of flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to say,

“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”

Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts.

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point We’ve got to see it through. Be concerned about your brother; we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.  Jesus talked about a man, who fell among thieves. A Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him.  And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.

We use our imagination to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late? We might 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.”

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 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. 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 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 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.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness.  Let us stand with a greater determination.  And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there a demented black woman came up. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, from all over the states and the world.  I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. It said simply,

“Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”

“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze.  Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

Now, it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. 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!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

The next day Thursday, April 4, 1968 King was killed, murdered by a single round fired from a 30-06 rile as he stood on the balcony of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day.  A holiday we established as a country to honor his legacy.  We tend on this day to look back at his work, look back at the things he, with the help of many others accomplished.  I’m not sure he would have wanted that.

Looking back, it is easy to see ourselves on the right side of the issues.  Is it comfortable to make a stand with Martin because it is accepted by our society that he was right?  The civil rights movement was just.  History has told us what is correct, and we merely nod approval and identify with the movement.  But King’s focus was not the rear view mirror.  His description of living in the current struggle is a point we cannot afford to miss if we are to stand for justice.

Blacks are 5 times more likely to go to prison in our country than whites.

¼ of the black population of Kentucky can’t vote because of a felony conviction.

Black people comprise 38 percent of all Americans who have been stripped of their voting rights due to felony convictions, though they are only 13 percent of the country’s population.

There are huge racial disparities in how police use force resulting in far more black deaths than the % of the population indicates.

Huge racial disparity in poverty rates

Capital punishment rates.

Economic opportunity

The list goes on and on

King said that he had been to the mountaintop.  And seen the Promised Land.  He promised that we, as a people, would get to the Promised Land!

But please notice that his focus was on the future.  It has been 50 years since his death.  Have we reached the Promised Land?  Have we reached racial equality? Do we have a just nation?   Or have we lost the critical unity he was describing?  Have we given up the struggle?  Do we live in fear?  Fear about will happen to us if we join the struggle instead of what will happen to the less fortunate children of God if we do not?

From his view on the mountaintop Martin warned us about all these things.

On this MLK day let us not look back at what he accomplished but rather consider what issues he would be fighting for today if he were still with us.

I believe that he would encourage us to look for and join the efforts of those who are working for racial equality.  Others who have filled the void left by King’s death.  Others who continue the struggle, continue to build unity and keep us moving as a people toward the promised land.


This message was given by Jonas Cox at Spokane Friends Church on January 20, 2019.

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