Today, America honors the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and what he meant to our nation. In so doing, we will likely focus on his achievements—understandably so, since they were so impressive, and continue to grow. But it’s equally important to remember the many struggles that preceded them. From the moment King entered the public square, determined to counter evil with good, he was questioned, challenged and assailed. Some of his own allies thought him unrealistic; many conservatives judged him subversive, and the FBI hounded and monitored him. Today, that is largely forgotten, as all three recognize his greatness: progressives, as an activist for peace and social justice; conservatives, as a defender of the Natural Law and Biblical truth; and the U.S. government, as a symbol of national unity and American principles.
Even after passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, King never rested on his laurels. He continued to fight for his ideals, even in the face of hostility and opposition. Nowhere was that clearer than in his very last address—his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Not as well known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, it is equally moving and prophetic. In a way, it is a brief narrative and microcosm of his extraordinary life.
In the spring of 1968, King had travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support black public works employees, who were striking because of unequal treatment. On April 3, he spoke powerfully on their behalf, but also about much larger themes, particularly his high expectations for America’s democracy, and how it was falling short:
The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see all the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening.
One of the developments that stirred King was the activity of the evangelists he was speaking to that day: “You know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. 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, and whenever injustice is around, he must tell it.” He warned his fellow ministers, however, that speaking out would come at a price, citing the Gospel and difficult experiences from his own life.
The next day, King fell victim to an assassin’s bullet, tragically dying when he was just thirty-nine. According to biographer Taylor Branch, medical examiners discovered that King actually “had the heart of a 60 year old,” likely due to the extreme stress he endured. No American ever suffered more for truth and justice than Reverend King.
Despite efforts to secularize him, and certain personal failings in his own life, King was a deeply Christian figure. Those of us who believe, as did King, that America would be elevated by a greater adherence to Judeo-Christian principles, can draw strength from his public witness.
Among the many lessons from Reverend King’s life are that faithful Christians should pursue their dreams, but be willing to make sacrifices, and be prepared to endure doubt, ridicule and even persecution. Worthy dreams are usually accomplished only after tribulations, and intense struggle. But if we don’t lose heart, and remain faithful to God, it will all be worth it. As Reverend King himself said, in the closing words of his inspiring Mountaintop address:
And then I got into Memphis, and some began to say the threats or talk about the threats, or what would happen to me. . . . Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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.