Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've Been to the Mountaintop Introduction

We can't think of any better way to wrap your head around Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" than to get a little taste of the mountaintop yourself. If you already live on a mountain, congratulations—just step outside for a bit. As for the rest of you, you can climb a mile in MLK's boots using common household items by following these four easy steps:

  • Dress for subzero weather, including a scarf and a pair of ski/safety/swim goggles.
  • Turn on the nearest fan. Full blast. All the way to 11.
  • Stuff your shoes, coat, hat, gloves, and, yes, pants with crushed ice. More. More. More. You should now look and feel like a human snow cone.
  • Stand on a tall object facing the wall. Have a friend duct tape you to this wall and remove your support, then throw any remaining ice at you as you cling to the sheer sheetrock face for dear life. If you like, you can even simulate an avalanche.

Congratulations—you're now mountaineering in the comfort of your own home.

First and foremost, we hope nothing important got frostbitten. But we also hope you get the idea: reaching that mountaintop is tough. We're talking steep, we're talking cold, we're talking even potentially deadly. Mountain climbing is high risk and high reward, but the reward—perspective—is awesome.

Okay, you can breathe now.

So, what is this "mountaintop" Dr. K risked it all to climb, and what for?

Equality.

We'll call it "Mount Equality." It's a symbol. You love symbols. Specifically, it's a symbol of the arduous journey of African Americans from slavery through segregation and, finally, to the Promised Land of equality and full citizenship.

Yep, the Promised Land is a great place, but to get there, you've gotta get over that mountain.

The good news is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an expert climber. He'd been scaling Mount Equality almost his whole adult life.

It started with his leadership of the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott when he was just 26 years old. Then there was the anti-segregation and voting-rights activism of the early and mid '60s. In 1963, as part of the March on Washington, King gave his best-known speech, which also happens to be probably The Most Famous Speech In American History: "I Have a Dream."

Eventually, all that hard climbing by King and many other civil rights activists paid off: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act finally put an end to many forms of discrimination faced by African Americans.

The end.

Or is it?

Uh…it's not.

Because, even though discrimination was illegal, racism was a longstanding habit that was hard for the country to kick.

"I've Been to the Mountaintop" was Dr. K's final contribution to that work. He gave this speech on April 3rd, 1968 to rally support for a march with the Black sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee; the workers had been on strike for several months in an effort to convince the city to raise wages and improve working conditions. For example, they thought not being eaten alive by garbage trucks would be a good start.

Think we're kidding? Just check out our "Historical Context" section.

In "I've Been to the Mountaintop," MLK is both aspirational (his "I Have a Dream" mode) and practical (his community leader mode). He talks excitedly about how human rights are expanding all across the globe, and he also talks very concretely about strategies for improving the lives of African Americans.

Sadly, Dr. K never got to see the march he'd come to lead. He said he'd been to the mountaintop, and while he might not make it to the Promised Land, he'd sure enjoyed the view. His trek to the top of the mountain proved fatal. No, it wasn't rabid mountain goats: his work in the Civil Rights Movement had made him a lot of enemies.

But it also made him a lot of friends: it won him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. That totally beats our faux-metallic soccer trophies.

Most of all, though, it earned him a prime spot in our national culture and imagination. The top of the heap.

King of the mountain.

  

What is I've Been to the Mountaintop About and Why Should I Care?

It's always tempting when you're dealing with a celebrated person to say something like, "Why should you care? It's Martin Luther King…duh?"

Do people still say "duh"?

Whatever, we're bringing it back.

And it's true: the guy's got a national memorial, gets quoted and invoked pretty much constantly, and has tons of streets, schools, and even a shoreline named after him. Then there's the fact that MLK gets you a day off from school. The least you can do in return is learn a little about the guy.

So, yeah: on some level, you should care about this speech because it's Martin Luther King…duh.

But let's dig a little deeper. Have you ever caught yourself doing something that, deep down—maybe so deep you need a submersible to get there—you knew was just plain wrong? Maybe you heard a little voice inside saying, "Psst…hey…hey, you…seriously, knock it off." Or possibly it was telling you to do something nice for someone when you weren't sure you had the time or ability or desire.

That voice, that know-it-all friend who's always making sure you mind your P's and Q's—that would be your conscience. What your conscience does for you—acts as your guide—Dr. K tried to do for the country.

He gave voice to our conscience.

And in this speech, he's being that voice. He's saying, "Listen. We all want the world to be a nice place. And, sure, feeling sympathy for people is great, but things will never get better if we wait for problems to fix themselves. So we've gotta hoist ourselves off our fundaments, roll up our sleeves, and get cracking."

That's the challenge Dr. K throws down in this speech. That's the challenge he threw down to America. It's our responsibility to make a difference—that's the daunting part. But it's our responsibility because we can make a difference. That's the hopeful part.

So if you're looking for a pep talk, you've come to the right place. "I've Been to the Mountaintop" is MLK at his high-kicking, pompom-waving best.

I've Been to the Mountaintop Resources

Websites

Stanford's King Institute
Got a research paper on something MLK-related? Thank us later. Better yet, buy us some onion rings.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center
Run by the King family, it's got more MLK archival material than is probably healthy. Remember to stand up every 20 minutes.

National Civil Rights Museum
It's a…museum…about the…Civil Rights Movement. The main building is the old Lorraine Motel, where MLK was assassinated.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
It's a…museum…about…African American…History and Culture. Run by the Smithsonian Institution. In DC. A.k.a. NMAAHC, which is not a useful abbreviation. At all.

Movie or TV Productions

The Balcony Scene
We head over to Billy Kyles, on location at the Lorraine Motel.

Eyes on the Prize
Fourteen hours of civil rights goodness. If you watch half an episode per day, it'll last you through all of Black History Month. We can't stop singing that theme song.

Montgomery to Memphis
This video record of MLK's career is brought to you by the letter M.

Articles and Interviews

Meet an Invader
Want to hear from one of the sanitation workers and a member of the Invaders? We thought so.

Memphis v. MLK
Your desire to read court documents is a fire that no water can put out.

I Am a Life
A brief history of the slogan "I am a man," from slavery days to present

The Biblical Exodus in the Rhetoric of Martin Luther King
You know what story the King children were read every. single. night?

More Moses
Excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston's novel Moses, Man of the Mountain. Because you want to read the Exodus story every. single. night.

A Noble Nobel Lecture
MLK thanks Norway for the shiny.

The N**** Artist and the Racial Mountain
Another famous mountain in AfAm culture, this time from Langston Hughes. That guy whose poem about the "crystal stair" you had to memorize for English.

Rip Van Winkle Elementary
Thought segregation was a thing of the past? Check the date.

Video

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
Some video snippets of "Mountaintop": a liddle from the middle, plus The End.

#1 Sherpa
A talk by professor Keith Miller, author of Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic: His Final, Great Speech, which is a WHOLE BOOK on "I've Been to the Mountaintop." You know you want it.

Playtime
Clips of and chat about Katori Hall's 2009 play The Mountaintop, in which MLK and a maid pace around a motel room for an indeterminate period of time.

Audio

"I've Been to the Mountaintop"
You get all 43 minutes.

Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech
It's an interview with Billy Kyles, that guy who tried to get MLK to dinner on time. Unfortunately, the food wasn't the only thing that got cold.

Images

The Literal Coolest Picture of MLK
He'll see you…on the flip side.

BFFs: King + Abernathy
Does it really take this long to microwave a potato

Mason Temple: The Outside
Yep, it's a building

Mason Temple: The Inside
How he fit a mountain in there we'll never know

I AM THE MAN
"Your sign was supposed to say a man, Louis. I am a man." Protesting sanitation workers.

Remember How the National Guard Was Called In
So close you can smell the bayonets.

Man Down
Ralph Abernathy crouches by Dr. King while Andrew Young and others point toward a very loud sound.

You've Heard the Speech, Now Climb the Mountain
What's it like up on Mount Nebo? This.