Personal Musing: 50 Years Later

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” [Annotated Speech]

I stopped my Civil Rights Bus Tour series on Day 5 in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. So this post jumps to Day 7, our day in Memphis.

I only took one picture that day and it was at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the former Lorraine Motel, the place where King was assassinated in 1968. It was strange being there. A lone protester stood near the sign. Jacqueline Smith objected the site’s transformation into a museum as oppose to a community center and the gentrification of Memphis. People rolled their eyes, but the woman had a point. I walked to the entrance after receiving my ticket unsure how to feel. It just felt weird to be there.

The museum began with slavery and continued forward in African American history highlighting the long Civil Rights Movement. Some events were close to the Flowers-Wilson family such as Mississippi Freedom Summer and school desegregation cases. Other exhibits featured the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Bloody Sunday, and Black Power. The museum seemed a lot smaller from the outside, but it is a fairly large museum. The speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was King’s very last speech and what I wrongly assumed was the last exhibit. I sat watching King speak and took in every last word. The speech is rather eerie.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it              doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t                        mind. 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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m                  not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Its the line “I may not get there with you” that sends me to tears. “Did he know?,” I always wondered. Did Malcolm X know as he greeted his murderer with a smile? Does anyone know? is a question that causes many minds to wander. I failed to realize that the last exhibit was Room 306 and 307 as well as the balcony where King was shot. I simply got up and followed the line of people. Then I noticed the please be quiet sign. Puzzled I proceeded and came face to face with a moment frozen in time–King’s assassination. The beds of the room were unmade with coffee cups lying about and clothes. I kept thinking to myself why did it end like this? On the balcony was a wreath of flowers and across the street the building where the fatal shot was fired. In his suitcase, he carried his book Strength to Love. Strength to Love, the irony and cried. After six days of the tour, I was done. I returned to my spot in front of the screen displaying King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The exit led to a large gift shop and I understood why Mrs. Jones protested.  

On the bus I continued to read Ralph Albernathy’s memoir And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. In fact, King began his last speech thanking Albernathy for his friendship.

Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his eloquent                and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was                talking about. It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate say                            something good about you. And Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world.

In the Introduction to the 1990 edition of the book, Albernathy wrote:

When he went to jail, I went with him. When he marched in Birmingham and Selma               and Chicago, I marched beside him. When he faced the dogs and the tear gas, I faced             them too. When he worried over a problem at some cheap motel in a strange and                   hostile city, I worried with him. And when he was gunned down in Memphis, I was                 the one who rode with him in the ambulance; and after the doctors had given up on               him, it was I who cradled him in my arms until he died. 

It seems weird to call this the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination for the word anniversary usually follows “Happy”. I mourn the loss of a leader even fifty years later and I wish we made it to the Promised Land. Fifty years later and we are not even close.




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