If you are unfamiliar with the speech (as I was), I definitely recommend reading through it or watching the video clip. The man's work doesn't show up in college speech and rhetoric classes for nothing, and I've tried to capture a feel for his oratorical talent by pasting longer portions of his speech below.
One last note about this article: while I had originally said that there were lessons from this speech, I found myself thinking that I already understood most of what the speech pointed out. I simply needed to remember them. As such, here are six things to remember from the "Mountaintop" speech.
- Remember Your Dollar Matters - "We are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest Milk. Tell them not to buy ... Wonder Bread ... Tell them not to buy Hart's bread ... Up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven't been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike."
- I love the phrase "Redistribute the pain." Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, free market and non-monopolistic economies' strength comes from the fact that people can choose with whom to do business. If you disagree with a company's practices, as MLK did with the above companies hiring discrimination, you are under no obligation to go to them with your business. Since businesses are motivated by profit, if you can get enough people to boycott a company, you can force that company to deal with its issues. United, we can make the world better.
- Remember the Importance of Now - "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. This is what we have to do."
- In the speech, MLK is criticizing pastors who preach that things will get better for the poor in the afterlife without providing guidance on how to make things better today. One group focused on making today better (and I know that they're shifting priorities for various reasons)was Love Drop. They didn't put it on the government to help people out, they didn't put it on the church to help someone out, they didn't say "Something should be done about those who need help" and then do nothing. J. Money, Nate, and others decided that people should be helped TODAY, and they worked in a specific and organized way in order to do so. If you have a heart that burns to help those who are needy, there are plenty of ways that you can make a difference. Look for those opportunities. Make the world better.
- Remember Small Actions Can Have Huge Consequences - "You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, 'Are you Martin Luther King?' And I was looking down writing, and I said, 'Yes.' And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, your drowned in your own blood -- that's the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died."
- It is amazing to me that one can be so close to death that something as small as a sneeze could kill you. Little things can make a huge difference. I find that this is true in a variety of aspects of my life. Look out for the little ways in which you can help to make the world better.
- Remember Our Influence on Others - "Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School ... While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
- Perhaps obviously, the above is a letter that MLK mentions that he received while he was recuperating in the hospital after being stabbed, and what it illustrates to me is that each and every one of us has an influence. Whether it is a national influence as Dr. King had, or whether it is a local influence, there is someone in our lives that cares about us in some way (if you think there isn't, I invite you to visit the community that has grown around Postsecret). And if somebody cares about you, you definitely influence them in some way. How are you using that influence? Are you using that influence to make the world better? If not, why not?
- Remember We Won't Be Here Forever - "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. 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!"
- Due to the fact that he was murdered the next day, it seems amazingly prescient for MLK to include this line in his speech. He realized that, as a matter of simple biology, he would not live forever. The kicker is that neither will you, and neither will I. If we're lucky, we get 60 or 70 goods years on this earth. During that time, we can do amazing, even impossible things, or we can live lives of quiet desperation. Most of us fall somewhere in between those extremes, of course. I want to encourage every person reading this to remember that our lives are as big or as small as we make them. Dream big. Make the world better.
- Remember to Find Humor at our Own Expense - "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."
- Though this quote comes from the beginning of the speech, I thought it was best to end this list on a lighter note. At this point in his life, MLK was arguably the most famous and influential that he would ever be in his lifetime. Even so, after his friend introduced him, he took an opportunity to poke fun of himself by suggesting that he couldn't have been so person who was spoken so well of by others. This quote suggests an air of humility to MLK, and it makes me wonder how much better the world would be if everybody could adopt this mindset. The world is full of people who insist that their way is the best way and that every other way is worthy of scorn. The great joke to me is that there are seven billion people, and not one can say with 100% accuracy what will happen after we die. Many (myself included) believe they know, but nobody knows for sure. If that simple fact doesn't humble you, I'm not sure anything will.
Photo by Ron Cogswell.