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Martin Luther King Day


Today is Martin Luther King Day. The minister, activist, civil rights leader, American hero, Nobel laureate, and champion of non-violence was himself violently murdered nearly 53 years ago.

Like many (most?) children in the U.S., we studied his life and tragic death, and memorized parts of his immortal “I have a dream” speech. But, there’s another speech by Dr. King that is at least as meaningful and eerily prescient since he delivered it just one day before his assassination.

It’s known as, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and he was speaking in support of a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. Here are his most compelling and beautiful words from that speech. He began by imagining that the Almighty is giving him a choice of any era of the whole human history to live in.

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 twentieth century, I will be happy." 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. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, 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 away that men, in some strange way, 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."

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, 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 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.

And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God's children. And that we don't have to live like we are forced to live.

He continued for another 3,000 words or so to discuss the strike, as well as the greater civil rights movement, and the people doing what he saw as God’s work; the importance of unity and standing up to injustice. He referenced stories from the Bible, a failed assassination attempt several years earlier, and a meaningful letter from a little white girl. His final words are haunting.

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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. And 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, at 6:00 pm, Dr. King was fatally shot by an escaped convict named James Earl Ray. Today, we wonder what more he might have done with his life had he lived to a deserved old age.

We also wonder what he would think of the world we’re living in right now, more than half a century later, a world that remains divided and divisive. His words ring true, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” His optimism about the second half of the twentieth century has yet to be realized twenty years into the twenty-first.

MLK saw the promised land. May this new year help us see it too.

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