In his final address, I Have Been to the Mountain Top, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, had God asked him in which era he would want to live he would have passed over each time period right up until his own and he would have land right there. With a reputation for focusing on racial divides, King was in Memphis at the time to support the striking sanitation workers, having recently turned his attention toward what he understood was an even deeper divider of men–poverty. The next day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
I do not know if I could agree with Dr. King’s choice of when to live. I am not sure I would want to know how greed and fear has held us, since his death, in such slow motion that at times we seem to be racing backwards. In his address, King reminded his listeners that, “whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it…He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.” Then King urged his audience, “Now let us maintain unity.” I believe, had he lived, Dr. King would have broadened his sphere of advocacy and influence to include not only Black America but poor hispanic America and poor white America as well. I could be wrong, but as Martin Luther King gave his speech that day in Memphis to people getting ready to march in support of better pay and better treatment of the mostly Black sanitation workers, I believe his eyes were focused on a fight they had not yet imagined, a struggle which would require people of color to link arms with white people, people of one faith to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of another faith, straight people to hold hands with people in the LGBT communities, a battle King believed was right around the corner but as it turns out was over fifty years in the future, the injustice of growing income inequality plaguing America today.
The haves, the wealthiest 1% in America, are doing everything in their power to hold on to their power. And so far so good. Leading into the most recent election, they managed to keep the rest of us fighting among ourselves, fearful of one another instead of them. They used the fear of lost jobs and a disappearing way of life to fuel distrust, even hatred toward people who do not look like “us”, pray like “us”, or love like “us” despite the fact “they” are more like us than the people holding the pursestrings. Those in control let us believe and at times lead us to believe undocumented workers, refugees, and immigrants are stealing our jobs, when in fact, most manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation and will never “come back”. But, the tough talk worked. We elected a bully and his gang without understanding that “we”–all of us together who do not belong to the 1%–are the only ones on the playground the Bully now controls.
The majority in the House and the majority in the Senate are poised to undo every safety net that has ever been built for the poor, the working class, and women. They plan to deregulate banks and undo environmental protections. The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) is already in process of being dismantled and women’s healthcare via Planned Parenthood defunded. If Trump’s pick for Sec. of Education has her way, funding for public education will be siphoned off and land in the pockets of private education instead. Civil rights including voting rights seem to be on the chopping block. The guarantees of the first amendment to free speech, the right to assemble, and a free press exist now under the shadow of an oppressor’s hand.
As Americans–Black, White, Native American, Muslim, Christian, Gay and Straight, Americans of all shapes, colors, creeds, genders, and age groups–the time has come to muster our courage and heed the wise council of Dr. King, “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.” It has been nearly 53 years since Martin Luther King delivered his I’ve Been to the Mountain Top speech. 53 years. Today (1/16) we celebrate more than the man. We celebrate his achievements, his wisdom, and perhaps most importantly, given the event that is scheduled in just four short days, his vision.
When he spoke to those who had gathered with him to support striking union workers and to engage in a peaceful protest for justice, for truth, for equality, and for human dignity, I believe he was also speaking to us, this day, as we face an uncertain future. In the words of Dr. King:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…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.
Let us not allow King’s challenge to pass unanswered. We must bind our hearts and futures together if we are to overcome fear and replace it with courage, thwart the power of greed and substitute the potency of generosity, defeat the emptiness of hate and distrust and exchange it for the fulness of compassion. The time is long over due to finish the work King started in Memphis.