The Mountaintop

Some men and women are called.

The calling may come from God.  It may come from a great cause.  It may come from a sense of pervasive injustice which cries out for someone — there must always be a first — to get up from their chair and undertake great action.

The measure of how much the person called achieves depends on many factors: the riser’s innate abilities; the receptivity of the social climate surrounding him or her; the timing of the stance.

Optimally, the riser’s deeds will call other men and women of good will to action, while rousing the inert and raising the collective conscience of the society.Inevitably, the one called will encounter severe and possibly cruel resistance.  These points are the true barometer of the riser’s commitment to his or her calling, and to the riser’s skills in either neutralizing or overcoming the adversity.

In a handful of notable instances, the riser will achieve what Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces referred to as apotheosis (Greek for “exaltation of a subject to a divine level) and there will be an expansion of consciousness after defeating a foe.

However, it is more often the case that the called will fall victim to the overwhelming forces that he or she is seeking to vanquish.

History gives us the gift of some heroes who, although slain, have risen up beyond their deaths like a mighty phoenix to change the world.

Today, we celebrate the life of one such man.

King's Childhood home, Atlanta.

Martin King was not the son of a poor sharecropper.  He was not born into a life of extreme poverty or ignorance.

His father, Martin Luther King, Sr. was an educated church leader.  He himself had been born Michael King and he had named his firstborn son, Michael King, Jr.

A trip to Germany in 1934 changed all of that.  The father emerged from that trip profoundly influenced by the German theologian, Martin Luther.  As an outward sign of this change, he legally altered his own name and the name of his young son.

Young Martin attended fine schools — among the finest that the segregationist south had to offer young Negroes.

Joseph Campbell

As is often the case with many young heroes, he was sceptical of the force which would eventually proper him forward.  In his case, King expressed doubt as to many of Christianity’s main claims.  According to Wikipedia, he openly denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday School at the age of 13.  Other questions regarding the main tenets of his faith flowed from that point.

The writings of Joseph Campbell teach us that the hero is often helped along in his journey by a guide or mentor.  Think of Luke Skywalker, whom George Lucas based upon the writings of Campbell in his Star Wars series.

Dr. Thurman

In King’s case, he had several mentors.  Perhaps the first of which was civil rights leader and theologian, Howard Thurman, with whom King conferred while pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy at Boston University.  Thurman had been a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr. at Morehouse College.  More importantly, Thurman had conducted missionary work abroad, where he met Mahatma Gandhi.

This was unquestionably a source of influence for King.

Pause for a second to think about what King’s life could have been had he denied his calling and remained simply the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  He had achieved that position at the remarkable age of 25.  Quite possibly, he would still be alive at the age of 82 today.  He would have been a respected churchman with a large congregation and large family around him.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Now think of what America would be like today if MLK had denied his calling.

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

— Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.

Thrust into the public spotlight, King helped to organize a massive march of Washington.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.


I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

— Speech at the Lincoln Memorial, 28 August 1963.

These words are credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation (both white and black) and prompting the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1964, at the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

His actions in support of the cause continued in the following years.

In 1968, a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee caught King’s attention.  Urged by his closest aids not to take up this struggle, MLK made multiple trips to Memphis, while staying there for extended periods of time in support of this cause.  He canceled a planned trip to Africa in order to go to Memphis to lead a peaceful march.

Like Gandhi’s campaign to improve the lives of India’s untouchables, King devoted himself to amelioration of those among the lowest strata of American society.

Despite the overwhelming danger he faced on a daily basis, King went forward with his mission.

And then I got to 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 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. 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.

— Speech at rally in Memphis, 3 April 1968.

The very next day, Martin Luther King was assassinated as he stood on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel with his friends.  He was laughing and joking at the time.  He was 39 years old.

Think about what he strove for.  Think about what has been achieved as we sit here in America in 2011.

Thank you, Martin.

— The Major


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