Yesterday, as the majority of America rejoiced in a day off from work or school the conscious black community rejoiced in the single holiday allowed recognition in the western world. Vastly reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King embodied a merging of humanitarian and intellectual efforts in using the principles of the church to change the state of the union. His written and spoken words articulate the struggle of Black Americans with poise and precision rendering hope to the traditional and contemporary oppressed people.
Admittedly as a young woman I too confined Dr. King to his “I Have a Dream” speech. In my youth, I also juxtaposed the late great Malcolm X with Dr. King, deeming King the lesser of the two. However this thought was conceived in my inability to see the power in non-violence. My younger self falsely oversimplified non-violence as turning the other cheek. In my error, I confused passivity with non-violence. To choose non-violence is to fight your oppressors in refusing to grant them their desired reaction. To stand up as if you’ve never been knocked down is the epitome of strength and Dr. King’s legacy revealed this truth to my then naive soul.
While my now twenty-seven year old self experienced the wisdom of Dr. King’s words in A Strive Towards Freedom and “The Purpose of Education”, I am most moved by his final speech “ I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” Although spoken twenty years to the date I would take my first breath, Dr. King’s words transcend time and death— speaking to the still prevalent conflict of systematic racism. I am not sure if most would consider Dr. King’s demeanor optimistic, hopeful or the latter but irregardless his words are uplifting. In this spirit, he speaks to the happiness in living in the time period that he did. Consider the following:
And another reason that 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. That is where we are today.
Among the destitute conditions of the 1960s which included underperforming schools, sub-par facilities and senseless violent and fatal acts on the black community (to name a few), the 1960s was volcanic— making change not only a want but a demand. In naming the perils of our past it is apparent that little to nothing has changed. Yes, we disposed of the physical signs that restrict access. In turn we are granted a diverse range of behavior that still asserts black presence as undesirable. Thus, we’ve received the symbol of equality but not the equity of experience. So yes we can shop at the same mall, but we aren’t given the same smile of our fairer counterparts. No, we are issued an inauthentic smile that becomes a penetrating gaze which becomes a not so subtle hovering over our demonized presence. Symbols like a black president and first family distort the ever-rising number of black men and women, girls and boys slain as casualties in the ongoing oppression of black people in America. In remembering Dr. King’s legacy on his birthday weekend, it becomes a painful reality that his slain body aligns him with other fallen heroes of our past, Garvey, Malcolm X, Medgar Evans, George Jackson, Fred Hampton to name a few. While saying their names breathes life into an undying legacy, it brings tears to my eyes in realization that with the deaths of these leaders, a portion of our “fight” has died with them — causing us, as a people to gain satisfaction in symbols of a revolution. The symbols are often falsely attributed to remnants of a revolutionary victory that we never gained because we have yet to fight.
Dr. King evoked the “revolution” or its results in metaphorically referencing the mountaintop. He said:
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!
The end of his speech historically led many to believe that Dr. King predicted his own death. This assertion reveals those who rendered such commentary as ignorant to the revolution, for Dr. King, like any figure of change accepted death the minute he decided to fight for the greater good of humanity. Dr. King- although faced with a series of adversity never lost hope. It is this hope I believe that allowed him to see the mountaintop. I, like the much of the black diaspora, can also see the mountaintop— but from a vastly different view. For I see the mountaintop as I look up from climbing to the top. I see the mountaintop when I lift my head from the jagged reality that scars my heart and mind far more than it does hands and feet. As I look up I see the smiling faces of elders and ancestors like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, WEB Dubois, Booker T Washington, Ida B. Wells, Fanny Lou Hamer, Adam Clayton Powell, Alain Locke, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur who are also looking up. However, they see the sky and I see them.
Revisiting Dr. King and his mountaintop speech reveals they key to seeing the mountaintop as all about perspective. So while it is our job to keep our heroes’ memory alive, we must not become fixated on them as symbols. Rather, may they be the shoulders of which we stand to align ourselves alongside them on that mountaintop— crafting a world where the sky is the limit rather than the limit being the sky.
Thank you Dr. King. May you rest in the peace your legacy gives my soul ❤