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Given how strongly he feels about the strike, Dr. King leaves no rhetorical tools on the table, and we're betting if you dig in, you'll be able to find examples of logos, pathos, and ethos—the rhetorical Triple Crown. That said, the dominant mode of the speech is…drum roll, please…
"Now, wait just a minute," you might be thinking. "Surely it's pathos. Isn't this speech all about having sympathy for the sanitation workers?" And, yeah, that's true: the message of this speech is compassion. Check it out:
God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can't eat three square meals a day. (21.7)
We hear ya—that's pretty compassionate. But you'll notice what's not in this speech: the kind of personal stories we hear all the time in political rhetoric when politicians are trying to convince us to support a policy by appealing to our emotions.
(It's not that Dr. King didn't know how to use pathos in his speeches and writings. For a stellar, tear-jerking example, check out his his "Letter From Birmingham Jail.")
But here's what Dr. K doesn't say in his Mountaintop speech:
"Now, these sanitation workers are doing their best to make a living, just like you and me. They get up early every morning to make Memphis a clean, beautiful city that its residents can be proud of. And yet, despite this dedication to hard work, they're still suffering. Take the Johnson family, for instance. [Gestures to the Johnson family: Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, their three children, all dressed in their Sunday best.] Mr. Johnson has not missed a single day of work in five years on the job, but the members of this family have to take turns eating each night because there's not enough food to go around…."
Now, King does acknowledge the difficulties of the sanitation workers: "[…] up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kind of redistribute that pain" (24.6–7). But nowhere does he wallow in their pain; it's just an accepted fact. This is actually the only place in the speech he uses the word "pain"; he uses "hurt" a few times, but not with reference to the workers.
The thing is, many of the people in the audience that night were sanitation workers, so they didn't need to hear all the gory details of what they were going through. The question Dr. King asks instead is, first, what do we do? And then, maybe even more importantly, why do we do it?
Why? There are a couple of answers.
One of them is definitely among your favorites: "Because I said so." Dr. K doesn't actually say that, either, because he doesn't have to. Everyone already knows he's important. It's true that MLK wasn't everyone's most favorite person, which you'll see if you Shmoop on over to our "Compare and Contrast" section. But he was a widely revered figure in the Civil Rights Movement, as he reminds the audience when he reminisces about his career (17–18; 36–42).
Y'know, just in case they've forgotten.
But Dr. King doesn't allow this speech to rest on his own reputation. No, he's got a serious ethos-based trick up his sleeve: he implies that, by following his example, people will also be following Jesus' example.
This is why he tells the story of the Good Samaritan (27–30), which is the heart of his case for helping the sanitation workers. He wants to remind the audience that what he's asking them to do is the same as what Jesus asked people to do: "[W]hen we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. Be concerned about your brother" (26.4–6). In case it's slipped their minds, King tells the audience who their "brother" is by alluding to what Jesus said when someone asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" (27.1–4). (Hint: it's everyone.)
By aligning himself with Jesus, King turns the question of ethos back on the audience:
"I, Martin Luther King, Jr., stand before you not just as some Important Person who commands respect, but as a follower of Jesus. So whatever you think of my ideas is also what you think of Jesus' ideas. Agree with me and you agree with Jesus; disagree with me and you disagree with Jesus. Now, ask yourselves: if I'm a Christian, do I really want to disagree with Jesus?"
Ethos is all about what the audience thinks about the character of the speaker—if he or she is wise, trustworthy, compassionate, etc. With the story of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King tosses that question back to the audience, showing them that what they think of him tells them whether or not they're living up to their own moral standards. Whether or not they're wise, trustworthy, and compassionate. Whether or not they're being hypocrites. They can't judge King without judging themselves.
We can also see why King is more focused on ethos than pathos: feeling compassion is a good thing, but acting compassionately is our duty to our neighbor whether we're feeling it or not. Especially if we're not. And wanting to be a dutiful person is largely about evaluating our own credibility, which is an ethos thing. Do you really want to be out of the loop—on the proverbial "wrong side of history"?
Didn't think so.
And Dr. K asks a similar question about the United States as a whole: what kind of country do we want to be? "All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper," he says, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution/Bill of Rights (19.5). "[L]et us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation" (31.3–4).
As King has urged his audience not to be hypocrites themselves, he calls all of them to join together to correct the hypocrisies of the nation—to repair its ethos, long compromised in the eyes of its downtrodden citizens and the world.
No question about it, this is a really speechy speech. Some speeches work as well or better as written documents. When we read them, they sound a whole lot like essays. That can work fine if it's a really great essay and the delivery is dynamic, but it's usually…pretty…zzzz….
Right from the beginning, though, we know "I've Been to the Mountaintop" is a spoken presentation, because there's…wait for it…speaking. Usually a solid clue.
When Dr. K talks directly to Ralph Abernathy and the audience (1.1–2.2), we feel a sense of occasion, as if we're experiencing something created for a specific time and place. That's a hallmark of speeches: if someone is thanking someone or addressing specific people ("my fellow Americans," "ladies and gentleman," etc.), you've probably got a speech on your hands.
And we do. In fact, it's nothing but a speech—not a text at all. MLK created "I've Been to the Mountaintop" on the spot, drawing upon material and motifs from his previous experience as a public speaker and preacher. So the "text" of this speech is actually just a transcript of what he said.
It's true, creating a whole speech off the top of your head can be, er, challenging, as you might know. But if you can pull it off, though, extemporizing can have some advantages.
Take the audience's feedback, for example. Our transcript handily renders it in (italics). Those interjections probably shaped the structure of "I've Been to the Mountaintop." Because Dr. K didn't have some pre-written document to deliver, instead of reading a speech, he could read the crowd, giving them more of what they liked and less of what they didn't. We can't know exactly what was going through King's head, but he likely took at least some cues from the audience. That's the flexibility of improvisation.
Now, as you've probably noticed, this speech doesn't just get straight to the point the way a written-out document might. In fact, the sanitation workers' strike—which is what "I've Been to the Mountaintop" is supposedly about—isn't even mentioned until paragraph 15, and then only briefly. Is MLK having trouble staying on topic or what?
You get one guess, and the answer is "no."
After a long reminiscence about Birmingham, Dr. K brings the discussion right back to the issue at hand: "Now we've got to go on in Memphis just like that" (19.1). He's using a story to illustrate his point about marching peacefully. It's a pretty preacher-ish thing to do, modeled after another famous guy who used this technique. That would be Jesus. In fact, the Birmingham story parallels MLK's later use of the Good Samaritan story (27–30). It's a teaching tool.
So all the "extra" stuff might seem tangential at first, but…nah. It's there to make Dr. K's pragmatic points more vivid and engaging. He wants to motivate people, so he has to keep it lively. When he delivers the more practical stuff (e.g., 22–25), he does it in smallish chunks so people don't get bored. In between, he weaves in stories and philosophical musings to keep the audience interested and create the sense that the sanitation strike is part of something big—History with a capital H.
In short, what can seem like meandering actually plays a critical role in how the speech functions. King isn't just there to offer advice—he's there to pump you up.
You know how movies sometimes start with a flashback? A good intro-flashback fills us in on the backstory, sets the stage for what's coming, and gets us interested in what we're about to see. Or, in this case, hear. Paragraphs 2–10 do just that, telling the audience about the long history that led to this moment. Paragraphs 11–13 fill in the philosophical context of the sanitation strike. Vive la révolution.
Now we get some practical stuff: paragraphs 14–19 are all about how the marchers should behave, using the Birmingham story to emphasize the effectiveness of nonviolence—and, ahem, King's leadership.
Dr. King has numerous colleagues present at the speech, both his own team and local organizers. Having outlined what he wants to happen, he takes a moment in paragraphs 20–21 to thank everyone who's making it happen, emphasizing that he thinks they're doing God's work.
This is more practical stuff. In paragraphs 22–25, King lets everyone know that, while marching is great and all, it's more of a bandage than a cure. To address the root of labor discrimination, coordinated economic pressure is needed. He maps that out here.
In order to justify the burden he's placed on the audience, in paragraphs 26–31, Dr. K invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is the moral heart of his argument: it's here that he makes the case why all the marching and the boycotting and whatnot need to be done.
Just as MLK seems to be winding down with a little reminiscence (paragraphs 32–42), things take a somber turn. He starts thinking aloud about how he might not live to see all the great advancements he's talked about (43–45).
It's the climactic moment because it pulls the rug out from under the audience, suddenly stripping away the feeling of certainty and momentum that the rest of the speech has created—and yet also reinforcing it. We're pulled in two directions at once as Dr. K contrasts the uncertainty of his own future with the certain victory of justice.
The ending of "I've Been to the Mountaintop" is so rousing and so firmly linked to Dr. King's assassination that the feelings it evokes can sometimes overpower the rest of the speech. We come to the end feeling both hopeful—"we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land" (45.10)—and bittersweet: "I may not get there with you" (45.9).
But, although there are lots of other hopeful moments (10.5, etc.), the bulk of "Mountaintop" is hortatory. That means it encourages people to do stuff. Over and over, MLK gets all bossypants (we mean that in the most flattering possible way, like really nicely tailored bossypants) and tells people what to do:
There are tons of places just like this, where Dr. King talks about either what "we" need to do or what "you" need to do.
All this exhorting suggests that, although Dr. K is hopeful, he doesn't think hope means loafing around in our underwear, watching Survivor reruns, and feeling optimistic. (We 100% did not choose that example based on what we're doing right now. Okay, fine, 79%.) Rather, it means being the hope we see in the world.
In short, hope isn't something you have—it's something you do.
Climb Ev'ry Mountain; Ain't No Mountain High Enough. (Go ahead. Sing. We're not listening.) The proverbial guru perched on a peak.
Even Shmoop's own "Tough-o-Meter."
Everywhere you look, it's mountains, mountains, mountains: they're one of our oldest metaphors for struggle, and also for the clear and far-reaching vision we're rewarded with at the top. And it's this image, both familiar and powerful, that Martin Luther King, Jr. uses to close his very last speech.
Actually, though, "I've Been to the Mountaintop" isn't the official title. There is no official title, because this speech was improvised. But that's what everyone calls it. The name comes from the last paragraph, which alludes to the story of Moses, the Biblical leader who sees the Promised Land from the top of a mountain but never actually gets there. King tells his audience, "I've been to the mountaintop."
Dr. King uses the Promised Land story to assure his audience that African Americans' struggle for equality will definitely, unquestionably succeed, even without him: "We, as a people, will get to the Promised Land" (45.10). And the Civil Rights Movement did have to go on without him. Like Moses, MLK didn't live to see the future he imagined. But, at that moment, in his mind, he'd already reached the top of the mountain and seen the better world to come.
Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you, and Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.
I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow. Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world. (1.1–2.3)
Some speeches begin with calls to attention: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." (Not a request for actual ears, obvi. Don't be weird.) Others begin with a hypnotic once-upon-a-time: "Four score and seven years ago . . . ." Still others throw out a provocative statement to get your attention: "It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope."
Thanks for categorically trashing hope, Debbie Downer Henry.
This speech doesn't do any of that. Instead, Dr. K's opening remarks are relaxed and conversational. There's no feeling yet that he's making a Big Historical Statement; instead, he thanks the audience for their applause, thanks Ralph Abernathy for introducing him so generously, and then tells everyone he admires them for showing up despite the treacherous weather.
That's it. He just sort of…starts.
So, why begin a speech this way, rather than offering a big, bold opening line? Well, a couple reasons. One is that MLK wasn't expecting to speak at all, so he didn't have any prepared text to deliver. He was just making up the speech as he went along, drawing on years of experience as a preacher and public figure. So he probably wasn't exactly sure how the speech would go. He just started talking and went with it.
(Note that "Dr. King did it" will almost certainly not get you off the hook for winging a presentation. He's a professional.)
Another reason is context: when he gave "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Dr. K was among friends and allies, so he's speaking to them as friends and allies. Instead of talking at people in some high oracular tone, King is relaxed, friendly, and humble. These first sentences create a feeling of conversation. Even though he's a Keeping Up with the Kingdashians-level celebrity, MLK is not apart from the group, but a part of it. They're all in this together: it's an idea he'll return to over and over in this speech.
After establishing a rapport with his audience, Dr. K does drop a big, bold statement after all: "Something is happening in Memphis[;] something is happening in our world" (2.3).
Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to 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 (Yes sir), 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.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (45)
Unlike the opening, the end of this speech is positively thunderous. You should seriously go watch/listen.
In this last paragraph, Dr. K casts himself as a Moses figure—a leader who guides his embattled people to the Promised Land but dies just before they get there.
Some reward that turned out to be.
He tells the audience that, like Moses, he's already "been to the mountaintop" they're all climbing together (45.2). Wait a minute, they think. You've what? Sort of like when you're watching a series with someone and then discover they've binge-watched the whole thing behind your back.
Like you, they probably had some questions:
Q: If climbing the mountain = struggling to achieve freedom and dignity for oppressed people, and that hasn't actually happened yet…how can MLK claim he's been there, done that, and come back down—done and dusted?
A: Well…it's a prophecy.
Q: What's the view like from up there?
A: Only the best view ever.
Up on that metaphorical mountaintop, MLK's "seen the Promised Land" (45.8)—not an actual different place, but our world, once people have decided our fellow human beings are priority number one. It's a land of freedom, equality, and full citizenship for all, and Dr. K is certain that African Americans will "get to the Promised Land" (45.10). He's not afraid to die, either, because he believes freedom and justice are "God's will" (45.6). And what God wants, God gets.
The last flourish, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" (45.12), is a line from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's not just an apocalyptic vision of the Second Coming of Jesus, but a vision of peace on Earth and goodwill toward our fellow human beings. A.k.a. what Jesus preached the first time.
It's a powerful ending, and it makes us ask ourselves questions that Dr. K would want us to ask—questions he'd surely asked himself many times. It's an uplifting vision of the promise of equality being finally made true. But it's best known as a tragic prophecy of his assassination.
Dr. K does go to the mountaintop, but not this mountaintop, thank goodness. Even at its most figurative, the language of this speech is beautifully clear, but King also makes numerous allusions to historical figures, the Bible, and events in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Unless you're hauling around a Santa-size knapsack of historical knowledge, that can feel like a lot of ground to cover. It's also a pretty long speech, and it doesn't just get straight to the point—in fact, it has a lot of points—so don't worry if you find yourself thinking, "Wait, why's he talking about this?" You're not on this trail alone; Shmoop's right behind you with the compasses, harnesses, and carabiners.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not originally named Martin Luther King, Jr.: he was born Michael King Jr. His father, the minister Michael King Sr., decided to change his own name in homage to the German Protestant reformer Martin Luther, at which point five-year-old Michael became Martin Luther Jr. Just one more reason to want to Be Like Mike. (Source)
King's final remarks in "I've Been to the Mountaintop" are usually read as an uncanny prediction of his death, but actually, he'd guessed a long time ago. When President Kennedy was shot and killed by a sniper in 1963, MLK forecasted that "This is what is going to happen to me also." Sometimes, it's better to be wrong. (Source)
King almost bit it a lot sooner, though. As a young boy, upset about his grandmother's death, young MLK jumped out a second-story window. Twice. Some things you have to try again, just to be sure. Like badminton. Or octopus. Or autodefenestration.
Maybe this whole "last speech of Martin Luther King, Jr." thing seems all doom and gloom, but he occasionally took a break from saving the world to have a little fun. Just an hour or so before King's assassination, a bunch of SCLC folks had a knock-down drag-out pillow fight at the Lorraine Motel. (Source)
Nobody's perfect: in 1991, it was determined that Dr. King plagiarized large portions of his doctoral dissertation. We can't be sure why, but at least one scholar has proposed that King might have been pulling a fast one on negligent white professors. (Source)
King also smoked. But, to his credit, he knew he was a role model and tried to keep it a secret. (Source)
The FBI's code name for MLK was "Zorro." (Source)