Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968, 6:01pm. 50 year ago today, one of the world’s foremost leaders of civil rights and non-violence was stolen from the human community. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had returned to Memphis to support the ongoing strike of African American sanitation workers who had, due to the color of their skin, been denied safe working conditions and equal wages.
He had returned to the city a day before, delayed by a bomb threat on his plane. Determined to support the workers, he arrived despite the danger and delivered his now famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop!” speech on April 3rd.
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! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
These words are still remembered for their beauty and their power, but most of all for their prophetic tragedy. Yet, the true prophetic sense of King’s words are often missed because we often put King within a narrow Civil Rights narrative that ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 or the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (a few days after his death). In so doing, we place King in a narrative of protests, marches, and legislation, a narrative that has a distinct end. But, that is not the narrative he uses here.
The Beloved Community?
Instead, King evokes the image of Moses on Mt. Moriah. It is the perennial image of the leader who looks beyond themselves, beyond their present, and into the hopes of the generations that would follow. What was this Promised Land, and have we arrived?
King’s vision of the Promised Land was not constrained by legislation (though it was not less than it). Rather, King looked forward into the Promised Land of the “Beloved Community”
According to King, in this community,
the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.
As we look out onto our landscape today, we must ask: have we arrived at Dr. King’s vision of such a place? Is the ground beneath our feet the same ground he saw as he persevered to the end?
Let us consider:
Though African Americans and Hispanics make up around 32% of the general population, they account for 56% of the prison population.
Despite African Americans and white Americans using illegal drugs at the same rate, African Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges.
African Americans families continue to earn only a little over half of what white families do.
It is estimated that 26% of African American children live in food insecure households while only 13% of white children do.
African Americans continue to be more likely to die at early ages from all causes than the general population.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 33 men are victims of an attempted rape at some point in their lives.
Walking to the Promised Land
The view from Dr. King’s mountaintop was of a land that we have yet to enter.
The reasons for this are legion. It results from the apathy of King’s “white moderate,” the lackluster desire among many of us to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and the failure of all of us to develop King’s “dangerous unselfishness.”
We must continue to work for King’s Beloved Community to take shape in our world. It is not a process that is free from strife or from sacrifice. There will be protests, there will be anger, but holy anger births love and justice, not mutual antipathy.
Fifty years on, the Promised Land remains in front of us. We must walk it, black, brown, and white together. The work of the Beloved Community is all of ours. Yet, while the burden is all of ours, we cannot forget that – just as the burden of our society’s sins are not equally distributed – the burden of rectifying those sins remains unequally distributed. It would be a double burden to place the work of fixing the many racial, economic, and gendered disparities in our society solely on those who already bear the brunt of this injustice. Those of us who are free from such realities must enter into them and walk alongside our brother and sisters.
Perhaps then, we might understand what Dr. King saw on the mountaintop, and, perhaps, we might set a toe into that Promised Land.
To support the ongoing work of the NAACP, go here.
To get involved in Sentencing Reform advocacy, go here.
To get involved with ending sexual inequality, harassment, and violence, go here.
To better understand Dr. King’s philosophy of the Beloved Community, go here.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.