And then there’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”, delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his assassination.
This is the speech to end all speeches. I would have done a list of my “Top 10 Favorite Speeches” but numbers 10-2 are so far away from this one.
Dr. King, being very self-aware of who he was, the power and influence he yielded, and the relatively few days he had left, understood that this could very well be his last speech. What separates the Martin’s (and the Malcolm’s and the Milk’s and the Lumumba’s) of the world from everyone else is instead of hiding and attempting to extend his life as long as possible, he went on stage and delivered his own eulogy. He states “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But that doesn’t matter now.” Those are the words of someone who knows he’s got but a small amount of time left.
This speech is Martin essentially telling those against him, “Come and get me, I’m ready.” He knew at that point, the movement was bigger than him, it would outlast him, and his untimely, impending death would help the movement, not cripple it. He states, “So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” I think he had gotten to the point where he knew, sooner rather than later, someone would get him; there were simply too many against him to run forever. With that said, as is evident in listening (and most importantly, watching) this speech, he knew all the work that had been done would eventually pay off.
This speech is the most important piece of what I call my “public servant tool kit.” If I can ever be in a position to give a speech of this magnitude, this prophetic, this bone-chilling, this beautiful, this terrifying, I’ve done good. Right now as a 23-year old, I am extremely concerned with living a long life and longevity is truly of the utmost importance. Further down the road, however, I hope my true purpose in life is positively impacting those around me, not just aging simply for the purpose of getting older.
For me, the most important part of this speech is what happens after he delivers his last line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” from The Battle Hymn of the Republic. After he delivers his final line, he stumbles off stage, is embraced by his best friend, Ralph David Abernathy, and is sat down in a chair. At that point, Martin had nothing else more to give. He was done. At that very moment, he threw the baton up in the air and hoped someone would catch it to continue on with the movement he tirelessly worked to promote.
Only a handful of leaders from that era remain and, while some people have done a good job of picking up where they left off, there’s still a need for a critical mass to come together and progress this country (and the world) forward.
Martin stated in the speech, “I may not get there with you.” He knew he wouldn’t, physically, but I don’t think he fully understood how much he still would be here, symbolically. That’s probably one of the few things he didn’t fully understand, which is a testament to his intelligence, his sense of place, his humility, and his selflessness.
Happy MLK day, all. I hope you are honoring him by using it as a “day on, not a day off” instead of a day to catch up on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.