Study Guide

I've Been to the Mountaintop Themes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Violence

    If you ask people on the street what they know about Martin Luther King, Jr., they'll probably wonder where you've stashed the hidden camera. But if you manage to get an answer, they'll likely say something about "civil rights," "peace," "equality"—maybe even something a little fancier, like "nonviolence." Nonviolence in its various forms—especially peaceful demonstration and boycott—was the center of MLK's philosophy and activist strategy.

    In "I've Been to the Mountaintop," King reiterates his belief that violence is inferior to nonviolence as a means of effecting change; that violence makes it easy for oppressors to discredit their victims; and that violence compromises human unity in a way that threatens our very existence.

    Questions About Violence

    1. In paragraphs 17–18, Dr. King emphasizes the potency of nonviolent resistance against violent oppressors. How does that work? Why do you suppose nonviolent action might be useful for creating change?
    2. Do you agree with MLK that nonviolence is always the best way to solve social and political problems, or do some problems require force? If so, how do we decide when to use force and when not to?
    3. Can you think of an example of nonviolent activism in the news recently? Did it take one of the forms Dr. King describes in this speech, or was it something else? What issue(s) was it addressing? Was it successful? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    George Orwell once wrote that pacifists can't accept the possibility that "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." It's true: ultimately, nonviolence is ineffective unless backed with violence.

    Whether it's effective or not, nonviolence is the only acceptable method for resolving social and political conflict while hanging onto the moral high ground.

  • Solidarity

    "Too many cooks spoil the broth." Ever heard that one? Now, it's true, even one cook can spoil the broth, especially if they keep throwing disgusting things in it. But the point is that, when everyone tries to do their own thing, nothing gets done. At least nothing good.

    Which is why MLK says it's important to organize, because that's how you solve problems: sticking together to achieve a common goal. Solidarity can mean cooperation within a group, and it can also mean supporting people who are different from you. The Memphis situation has both: while the sanitation workers didn't have enough power to fix things on their own, Dr. K figured that, with enough people behind them, things might just change for the better.

    Questions About Solidarity

    1. The Invaders, who disrupted King's Memphis march, wanted many of the same things he did: namely, rights for African Americans. Are solidarity and agreement the same thing? Can you feel that you're on the same side as someone else even if you disagree with their actions?
    2. Dr. King says in this speech that "we go up together or we go down together." Are we really that interconnected? Does other people's suffering materially affect your life, apart from making you feel sad? When we help others, do we also help ourselves?
    3. Dr. King increasingly addressed class issues toward the end of his life, but he certainly didn't stop thinking about race, as demonstrated by his call in "Mountaintop" for African American camaraderie and collective action. How do race and class intersect in the Memphis sanitation strike? What's the relationship between looking out for your own group(s) and the idea of universal "brotherhood" expressed in the Good Samaritan story? Does caring about everyone mean caring about everyone equally?

    Chew on This

    We need this speech now more than ever, because the average American isn't sufficiently aware of or sympathetic to the plights of others, which means they'll never make the effort to solve big problems.

    Dr. King is right that unity is important for successful political action, but diversity—even disagreement—is just as important.

  • Religion

    Throughout his civil rights career, Dr. King was a practicing Baptist minister. He considered it his highest calling:

    But before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. (Source)

    MLK considered his politics to be inseparable from his religious beliefs. In "Mountaintop," Dr. K repeatedly invokes Jesus, urging his audience to avoid violence and to follow the example of the Good Samaritan. He also alludes to the "Creator" of the Declaration of Independence, that big Geppetto in the sky who, we're told, creates everyone equal.

    Dr. King uses these various forms of religious belief in "Mountaintop" to explain and justify social-justice activism and to assure his audience that their efforts will succeed. After all, Jesus is on the side of justice, and he can put the points up on the scoreboard.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you need to be a believing Christian to appreciate the religious basis of King's principles of nonviolence? Can an atheist be as committed to nonviolence as a religious person?
    2. Nowadays, some people like to debate whether or not the Bible offers any political guidance at all, or if it's strictly about interpersonal morality. If you're familiar with the Bible, what do you think? Does it have anything to say about the role of modern government or the legal treatment of different people? Does the Bible seem to endorse the "truths" stated in the Declaration?
    3. How did their religious beliefs help King's audience cope with the discrimination and violence they'd been subjected to for most of their lives?

    Chew on This

    Unwavering commitment to nonviolent resistance requires the belief that a higher power will use that resistance to make things right.

    Even if there is no God or universal order as King understands it, nonviolent resistance will still work. Most human beings are decent people who don't want each other to suffer and will always come around eventually. And the Cleveland Browns will win the Super Bowl next year.