How Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Mountaintop Speech’ Changed My Life [VIDEO]
I was 30 years old the first time I saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. I wish I had seen it as a child. I wish everyone could see it as a child. It should be required viewing in American schools, and it should be part of the fabric of American life. Here’s how it changed mine forever.
It was my 30th birthday, to be exact, and I was on a road trip to celebrate. I hadn’t made plans for my road trip — I just got in a car and drove as part of a grand adventure. So it was by complete chance that I ended up in Memphis, Tenn., with all the time in the world on my hands. The National Civil Rights Museum was just one of many stops I made that day. I had no idea what was waiting for me there.
In case you don’t know, the museum is built on the site of the old Lorraine Motel — the place where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. But before you could tour the old motel, they sat you down and made you watch a 20-minute documentary first.
That’s where I saw the ‘Mountaintop Speech.’ King delivered it at Mason Temple the day before he died. And as I watched, I realized what many white people probably still don’t know about Dr. King.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., KNEW he was going to die.
He might not have known it would happen the very next day. He might not have known it was going to happen in Memphis, but by 1968, Dr. King had a target on his back and he wasn’t blind to it. I guess while growing up I always thought Dr. King was just fighting the good fight and he happened to get killed by a mad man. But after I saw that speech, I knew something much deeper than that — he knew the ending to his own story.
In fact, Dr. King was terrified. There’s a very genuine fear in his eyes during the ‘Mountaintop’ speech. He couldn’t hide it, and he probably wasn’t interested in hiding it. And why should he? Why shouldn’t he show the world how scared he was? It’s the most important thing he could have done — to admit he was scared but that he wasn’t going to give up any ground. THAT’S how important his cause was. It was a moment of pure humanity, and it changed my life by forcing me to ask myself this question:
Is there anything in my life that would force me to go to that place? What in my life is so important that I would live with that level of terror to defend it?
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. 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. — Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech, April 3, 1968
I saw that speech, and then they turned me loose in the museum. It winds around and around until, eventually, you end the tour in Dr. King’s motel room. You’re just one pane of glass away from the balcony where he was shot.
I finished the tour and I walked out into the sunlight, and I saw the world differently. For the first time in my life, I understood what it must be like to be willing to die for something you believe in — and I also understood for the first time that I might not have the strength of character to do it. I couldn’t have stood in Dr. King’s shoes. I’d be lying to you if I said I wouldn’t have just got the hell out of Memphis as fast as I could. Of course I would have. So would most people.
It’s been over four years since I went to the National Civil Rights Museum. My life has changed immeasurably since then. And I think that speech had something to do with it. That question I asked myself on that October day in 2009 has colored everything that happened since. I realized I didn’t have anything in my life worth defending the way Dr. King did. I realized I didn’t want to continue through my life without something worth fighting for.
I have a family now. I’m going to be married this year. I have two step-daughters who depend on me to show them both the good and the bad in the world, and they depend on me to tell them the difference. I have a life worth living instead of a life I just so happen to be living.
Dr. King has done that for a lot of people, hasn’t he?