Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop Main Idea

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  • Main Idea

    Onlookers, Go Home. Or, Actually, Don't.

    "Don't be a spectator in the game of life." We're willing to bet you've heard that one before. It means you're missing out on a lot of what life has to offer.

    The fact is that the most important reason not to be a spectator in the game of life is that life isn't a game. It's the real deal. And not participating in life deprives us of wonderful experiences—but it also deprives others of everything we have to offer.

    That's the big idea Dr. King is trying to stuff into his audience's heads in "I've Been to the Mountaintop." What he's saying is basically: these sanitation workers need a helping hand. If everyone waits for someone else to step up, no one will. If everyone minds their own business or sits around watching people suffer, the sufferers will keep on suffering.

    So: who'll do something about it? Any volunteers?

    How about…you?

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Pick some problems facing our world today and compare them with the Memphis sanitation strike. Do you agree with Dr. King that ordinary people can bring about significant social and political change? Is it still possible in our time? Does this speech offer us any good advice about how to do that, or is it outdated?
    2. Could you answer Dr. King's call to serve others in "I've Been to the Mountaintop"? Would you be willing to risk your job, your good standing at school, your life, even your favorite sweater, to help someone you don't even know?
    3. Just how much help do we owe one another? Is there an acceptable minimum? A maximum? Is Dr. K asking too much of his audience? Too little?
    4. Flight attendants tell us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others, which…makes sense: a suffocating person is no good to anyone (and we don't want the whole plane looking like Blue Man Group). Can we expand this idea to life in general? Based on this speech, how do you think Dr. King would respond? What would his arguments be? Do you agree?

    Chew on This

    People have a responsibility to themselves and to their families, and Dr. King's efforts to guilt-trip people into sacrificing their own health, jobs, etc. for strangers is ethically dubious.

    As gazillions of social media profiles proclaim, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." But life is more complicated than that. MLK's experience with the Invaders exemplifies the fact that the main obstacle to solving societal problems is not lack of participation, but instead the difficulty of coming to a consensus about what should be done.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Even though employment discrimination was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not everyone got the memo. Because…they didn't want to. The Black sanitation workers of Memphis, tired of fighting an unyielding city administration for better working conditions, decided to call in the cavalry: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

    The Text

    This speech covers a lot of ground, but it can be divided pretty straightforwardly into six main parts.

    1. First, Dr. King talks bout how human freedom has been a long time coming, but the world has finally reached the point where people everywhere are demanding that their rights be respected. Oppressors are recognizing that that might just be a good idea.

    2. Then he talks about the matter at hand, the Memphis sanitation strike, urging the audience to remain unified in their commitment to nonviolent activism and reminding them that nonviolence achieved great victories for the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. (Example: civil rights actually exist now.)

    3. Next is a little interlude: King takes a moment to praise the religious leaders in the room for recognizing that this world is important, not just the next. He's glad they're helping the needy in material ways as well as spiritual. Because it would be nice to actually want to stick around for a while—who knows if they have cheese in heaven? Plus, everybody needs shoes.

    4. Speaking of which, King asks the audience to do more than just march. He wants them to combine their economic power and only give money to companies that implement fair labor practices, especially toward African American workers. He also wants them to bolster Black businesses, because that's a win-win: more money, fewer problems.

    5. To drive all these directives home, Dr. King reminds his audience of the Good Samaritan, who's basically that dude who always does everything right and everyone thinks he's such a nice guy and you sort of don't like him because his very existence makes you feel bad for not measuring up but you can't quite not like him because, to be fair, he actually is a really great guy. So King tells everyone to put on their Samaritan pants and nice up: it's everyone's responsibility to help everyone else. Even when it hurts.

    6. Finally, King reflects on his work in the Civil Rights Movement and ponders his own mortality, speculating that others might have to go on without him. He's right. Still, he remains confident that justice will prevail.


    Other people matter, so let's all behave accordingly. It'll make the world a better place, promise.

  • Questions

    1. Have you ever been in charge of a big event? How'd you motivate people to participate?
    2. At the end of the speech, Dr. King tells his audience they'll succeed in reaching the Promised Land even without him. Do you think that turned out to be true? Are great leaders important in altering history (the so-called "great man theory"), or are they just especially good advocates for changes that are already happening?
    3. Related question: Dr. K asks the audience to join the march and to stick to his plan, essentially encouraging them to be followers. We value "leadership" a lot nowadays. Is following just as praiseworthy and important as leading? What was the value of leaders and followers in the King sanitation march?
    4. Grab yourself some tea and cookies, find a comfortable chair, commandeer your favorite furry petting victim, and listen to MLK deliver "I've Been to the Mountaintop." Does hearing the audio change your understanding of the speech at all?
    5. What's your favorite moment in "I've Been to the Mountaintop"? Why?
    6. Counterfactuals are always highly speculative, but hey, let's go for it: how do you think the country might have been different (if at all) had Dr. King not been killed? If he were still alive today, what might he say about our hot-button issues? Would he find things to admire about our time? Besides Netflix?
    7. Keeping in mind that he was very controversial in his own time, can you think of anyone today who might deserve to be called a modern MLK? Why did you choose that person?
    8. Can you believe this whole guide doesn't make even one joke about The King's Speech?

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