Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop Quotes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Violence

    And another reason I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. But now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. (11.1–5)

    Invented in the mid-20th century, weapons of mass destruction have made violence a riskier proposition than ever. As more and more countries obtained nuclear weapons, the threat of global annihilation became increasingly dire; we almost went the way of the dinosaurs, and without the consolation prize of being awesome dinosaurs. But, while we don't have frills or horns or teeth literally the size of your forearm, we do have big, juicy, smart human brains. And we gotta use 'em, Dr. K says, to think hard about the cost of violence and choose wisely.

    Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. […] Now we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window breaking. (15.1–2, 4–6)

    Dr. King was frequently smeared by the white press as a troublemaker and a phony, and they jumped at the chance to do it again after his march with the Memphis sanitation workers. The papers got all in a tizzy about the looting and mob violence but "forgot" to mention the city's really scummy treatment of its workers. Funny how that works.

    So, MLK says, the marchers shouldn't give their enemies <em>anything</em> to use against them. Indulging in violence, says King, does nothing but distract from the cause and place all the attention on "bad" behavior.

    We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don't know what to do. I've seen them so often. […] [W]e just went on before the dogs and we would look at them, and we'd go on before the water hoses and we would look at it. And we'd just go on singing, "Over my head, I see freedom in the air." […] And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to. (17.1–4; 18.1–2, 7)

    Okay, so Dr. King is exaggerating a bit—it's actually hard to be all nonchalant when you're getting sprayed with a fire hose—but he's trying to convey the sense of inner peace felt by nonviolent anti-segregation demonstrators in Birmingham. When you don't have to worry about how to respond because your principles insist on nonviolence, maybe there's less inner conflict. Bull Connor's minions had no idea how to deal with people like this.

    We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles; we don't need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here to say to you that you're not treating His children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God's children are concerned." (23.1–5)

    King's assumption is that people ultimately care more about their economic interests than their prejudices. Keep an eye on the news: we see this strategy on an international level when countries impose economic sanctions on troublesome states to keep them in check while avoiding violence. Boycotts hit people where it hurts.

    And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. (44.1–2)

    Unless you're really unlucky/annoying, your brother isn't someone who wants to kill you. But MLK calls some dudes who want to kill him his "brothers." What gives?

    Well, he's following Jesus' instruction to "love your enemies." Brothers are people we tend to love even when they're total gremlins, and Dr. K had a thing for "brotherhood"—just check out his "I Have a Dream" speech. Maybe if those "sick white brothers" knew they were Dr. King's brothers, they wouldn't be quite so keen on having one less brother.

  • Solidarity

    Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. (14.1–9)

    You've probably heard the phrase "divide and conquer," perhaps with reference to consuming an entire pizza. You've probably heard this one, too: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Or this one: "United we stand, divided we fall." That's King's message here.

    Now not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. […] You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an "insurance-in." Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. And I ask you to follow through here. (25.1–3, 8–13)

    This passage highlights the tensions inherent in group identity: on the one hand, people who face more or less the same issues will sympathize with one another to some degree. On the other hand, people are individuals, and different people respond to situations differently. But unless enough people stand together, individual actions won't accomplish much.

    Some Black Memphians had clearly opted to put their money in white-owned banks and buy insurance from white-owned companies. MLK asks them to change their habits for the sake of the greater good.

    You may not be on strike, but either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. (26.7–8)

    The sanitation workers have already been on strike for months, and nothing has changed. They need more leverage, says Dr. K: they need their allies to put themselves on the line. But what if no one helps the sanitation workers? Will other people really "go down" with them? What is "dangerous unselfishness," and to whom is it dangerous?

    Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man[,] because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother. (27.10)

    This is about as pithy a definition of solidarity as we can imagine. Dr. K is prompting his audience to ask themselves, "What if it were me? How would I want to be treated?"

    But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. (45.10)

    Who do you think MLK means by "we"? Is he suggesting that "we" can only get to the Promised Land "as a people"—not as individuals? Is the Promised Land open to everyone?

  • Religion

    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 in our world. The masses of people are rising up.

    And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: "We want to be free." (10.5–8)

    Dr. King attributes the 20th-century global human rights push to the influence of God. If God is "working" in the world, will the world inevitably turn out how God wants, or can people foil his plans by not "responding"? Of course, plenty of segregationists thought that they were doing God's will, too. After all, if God wanted everyone to drink from the same water fountains, then why did he make them look so different?

    We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world. And that's all this whole thing is about. […] We are determined to be people. We are saying, we are saying that we are God's children. And if we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live. (13.3–4, 7–9)

    Here Dr. K leans on the Declaration's declaration that "all men are created equal," and are given by their "Creator" some inalienable rights to life, liberty, and…you know the rest. Being a child of God, according to King, makes you worthy of respect and dignity. Appealing to his listeners' sincere belief in God was a powerful motivator for them to be active in seeking the dignity and equality they deserve.

    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. […] It's all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. (20.3–4, 21.6–8)

    While the afterlife is great and all, says Dr. K, religious leaders have a responsibility to assist people with material concerns in this world right here. He's almost dismissive of the spiritual realm, calling it "over yonder," as if it's an afterthought.

    This passage exemplifies MLK's commitment to a set of ideas called the "Social Gospel." In contrast to traditional Christianity, which holds that human beings are "fallen" and unable redeem themselves, the Social Gospel says humans can be a force for good in the world. By following Jesus' example—especially loving one another and caring for the poor—people can bring about a kind of heaven on Earth.

    No word on how many ice cream flavors there are in heaven on Earth, but we're betting it's a lot more than 31.

    Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother. (27.10)

    Why do you suppose King tells the Good Samaritan story? Does he think his audience won't help the sanitation workers unless they're reminded that God is watching them?

    Btw, King is referencing Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian who wrote about "I-Thou" relationships vs. "I-It relationships." The former acknowledges the other person as a whole and unique person, the latter is a detached, one-sided type of encounter. It's about empathy, acknowledging the other's humanity. That's a gross over-simplification as you can see here, but that's the gist of it, plus it's all Shmoop can understand.

    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. […] Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (45.6–10, 12)

    In light of our discussion of the Social Gospel above, it becomes clear that the Promised Land is possibly less metaphorical than we might have thought. Maybe it's not a Promised Land as in just a really nice place to live, but an actual, God-ordained Promised Land on Earth, where true equality is found, brought about by doing the kinds of things King suggests in this speech.