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The power of speech

14 Nov 2013

Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

– Martin Luther King, Atlanta, August 1967

We’ve some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…

The great speeches of Martin Luther King Jr take their names from their rousing incantatory endings, their final rhetorical flourishes: ‘I Have a Dream’, ‘How Long? – Not Long!’, ‘The Mountaintop’. The greater part of the speech King gave at Mason Hall in Memphis on 3 April 1968 concerned the immediate matter of supporting the local garbagemen’s strike. Beginning hesitantly before gaining momentum, ‘The Mountaintop’ is a classic King performance, completely extemporised from familiar material. He needed no notes to tell folk to stay strong and united, to follow the principles of nonviolent action, or to keep up the boycott of downtown stores. A long section recounting the struggle against segregation in Birmingham in 1963, worked up from previous speeches, fell seamlessly into his argument. The speech rang with the Baptist cadences and rhythms that were second nature to King, with pauses for the congregation to respond with hollers and hosannas. King spoke brilliantly for forty-five minutes, yet it’s the last minute-and-a-half that has gained a kind of immortality.

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…

In the coming days and weeks, this closing section of King’s final speech became welded to the news reports of his assassination. Some believe King must have felt some sort of presentiment. Certainly, building to his conclusion, his speech turned to the threat of death. He went into another well-tried routine, recalling an attack by a deranged woman in 1960 in which the knife-blade came so close to severing his aorta that, according to the surgeon, he would have died if he had sneezed. Repeating the phrase ‘If I had sneezed…’, King went through one by one all the glorious things he would have missed: the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the campaigns against segregation and voting rights, the marches on Washington and Montgomery, and finally (receiving a cheer from the crowd) this strike action in Memphis. Listening to it now, it remains a marvellous piece of oratory, folksy, grimly funny and inspiring, but he barely paused before switching into a more sombre mood to describe the bomb scare on his plane that morning. Such threats were not unusual for King, nor was it unusual for him to mention them in his speeches. He had frequently said that the civil rights movement would continue without him. This time talking about the prospect of an early death put him in mind of the last chapter of Deuteronomy.

And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land…

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses went up from the plains of Moab to the top of Mount Nebo where God showed him Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, saying, ‘I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.’

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 rhetorical tradition that equates African-American slavery with the Israelites in bondage to Egypt goes back long before the Civil War and found lasting expression in countless Negro spirituals and folk songs. In the extended metaphor King and his fellow churchmen used in the civil rights struggle, the Israelites’ release from captivity from Pharaoh stood for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the years of wandering in the wilderness stood for the subsequent century of poverty, segregation and disenfranchisement in the South. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year came a sense that this brutal half-free half-slave period was coming to an end, though few dared to express the hope before King, a day before his death, evoked the sighting of the Promised Land. However, the most significant aspect of his use of this metaphor was that King, the least vainglorious of men, allowed himself to stand for Moses – the leader destined never to see the final deliverance of his people.

And I’m so happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man…

King’s rising voice and quickening delivery alerted the crowd at Mason Hall that the conclusion was nigh. The line that came to him to finish was a favourite, used many times before: the opening line of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, written in the first months of the Civil War by Julia Ward Howe as a marching song for Union troops. The Old Testament vision of the Promised Land was replaced by its mirror image in the New Testament, the promise of the returning Christ to restore justice…

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

This article is taken from the souvenir programme for The Mountaintop, available for purchase at Arts Centre Melbourne.