I Have Been to the Mountaintop

21 Jan
Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is little I love better when teaching the Introduction to Religion in America than discussing the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

It is a masterpiece of King’s sermonizing, effectively showing his mastery of the cadence and repetitive verse style he is best known for (“But I wouldn’t stop there” or “Somewhere I read”). It is historically significant, coming on the eve of King’s assassination.It is religiously significant, showing the deep roots of the civil rights rhetoric in the Old Testament and the Exodus.

I play excerpts in class, but I have students read it in full (usually encouraging them to read it with the full audio or video clips). For you reference, the full text is available at American Rhetoric (along with a video excerpt and full audio) and the full video is available at, among other places, this YouTube account.

It goes very well with several excellent chapters on King in Gary Selby’s Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom as well as a chapter or two (with the introduction) from Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet or even the PBS documentary God in America episode 5 “Soul of America” (which also has excellent study/reference guides for each episode on their website). Any or all of these work well depending on how long you’ve got to work with the civil rights movement.

On this day in 2013 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for the second time and when we celebrate the memory and life and Martin Luther King, do yourself a favor and listen to this amazing moment in American history. It’s still a powerful and evocative moment for helping to explain and understand religion in modern America, and especially helpful for understanding the last 4 years and what the next four years may promise.

Final thoughts: Remember that the promise of America that King sees, “Be true to what you said on paper,” is still palpable. “Somewhere I read,” King says, that the “greatness of American is the right to protest for rights.” If you don’t believe this still guides the civil rights movement and the political ethos in America, watch Obama’s inauguration today and its evocation of the obligations and duties that bind Americans together from our mutual connection to the Declaration. .

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