I was ready to march today on #MLK50. I got my signs together and contacted comrades and gathered venue information. In my final research, right before departing, I learned this particular small event I was planning to attend was factioned and problematic. It was not organized with accountability to the communities for which it claimed to advocate, had consistently undermined efforts in other activist groups, and the sources where I had originally learned about it were unreliable.
This happens sometimes. This happens OFTEN in the White Moderate that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned about in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.
We try to do good things, we really mess it up and hurt people, we try to learn and do better. I remember talking with my Republican grandpa about Martin Luther King, Jr.; Grandpa was honest with me and admitted: he and many others had been (Grandpa’s words) brainwashed by White leadership and media in the 1960s to believe that MLK was a menace, that King was un-American in his efforts, that his death wasn’t necessarily something to mourn. I remember being astounded to learn this.
Now I’m not astounded. My grandpa died in 2013 before #NoBanNoWall and #BlackLivesMatter came mainstream, but I can see now how contemporary activists put their lives and bodies and hearts on the line for the betterment of a country that does not protect them. I see how ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) targets activists for deportation. I see how beautiful movements led by Black and Brown Americans to end unjust incarceration and police brutality are labeled as “Black Identity Extremism” by the FBI. This is now.
And of course, every day, I question and am challenged to examine where/if my own voice is actually of use, of help in any of this. I am asked regularly, was firmly and rightly asked this Easter by a comrade: what place does a White Queer Christian Cis-Woman (add midwestern, add temporarily-abled, add middle class, add educated, and on and on) have in the struggle, if any? So I put on my glasses today and went back to what I could do, know how to do: return to the text. After all, I am a Lutheran, and returning to to a sacred source and reading with a subversive lens…well… that’s a Protestant birthright. Go back to the primary source and see what it ACTUALLY has to say, now. So I read Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s April 3, 1967 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in its entirety for the first time today. In all my years of all that education in our system, it had never been put in front of me. So I’ll put it in front of myself, and in front of all of you. I encourage you to read it too and sit with it, and become undone and emboldened by what is there. Here are 10 theses I’ve gleaned from MLK’s sacred text from the Mountaintop, and quotes from the transcript, in the order they appear in his speech. I bet you can find more. I am often asked: what can we do, where can we start? Here are some ways. Let’s begin.
Can’t March? Can’t Vote? 10 Justice Strategies from MLK’s Mountaintop Speech
“Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.”
“Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. (Right) The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. [Applause] Now we’ve got to keep attention on that. (That’s right) That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window breaking. (That’s right) I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that. (Yeah) [Applause]
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again (Yeah), in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be (Yeah) [Applause] and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering (That’s right), sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. (That’s right) And we’ve got to say to the nation, we know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. [Applause]”
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now we are poor people, individually we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it. (Yeah) [Applause]
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles; we don’t need any Molotov cocktails. (Yes) We just need to go around to these stores (Yes sir), and to these massive industries in our country (Amen), and say, “God sent us by here (All right) to say to you that you’re not treating His children right. (That’s right) And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.” [Applause]”
“Now not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. (That’s right, Yeah) I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. (Yeah) [Applause] We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. (Yes) Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves in SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we’re doing, put your money there. [Applause] You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.” [Applause] Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. (There you go) And I ask you to follow through here. [Applause]”
“As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kind of redistribute that pain. [Applause] We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies, and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right. (That’s right, Speak) [Applause]”
“You may not be on strike (Yeah), but either we go up together or we go down together. [Applause] Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus (That’s right), and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. [Recording interrupted] Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. (Yeah) And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. (Sure) You remember that a Levite (Sure) and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. (Yes sir) He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.”
“You know, what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. (Amen) It’s a marvelous picture. (Yes) Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somewhere the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones (Yes), and whenever injustice is around he must tell it. (Yes) Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God Speaks, who can but prophesy?” (Yes) Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Yes) Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Yes), because He hath anointed me (Yes), and He’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” (Go ahead)
“But there was another letter (All right) that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” (Yes) [Applause]
And I want to say tonight [Applause], I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed (All right), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960 (Well), when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up (Yes sir) for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
“If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. (All right)
If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed [Applause], if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963 (All right), when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. (Yes)
If I had sneezed [Applause], I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. (Yes) I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or 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. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] 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. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And 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. [Applause]”