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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.