“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” and The Courage To Make Change

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a dance performance by Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective, the Collage Ballet Conservatory, the Jones Haywood Dance School, and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.  It was a much needed dose of art as resistance and art as soul uplift.

My favorite piece was entitled “Rise.”  Choreographed by Kevin Thomas, the Artistic Director of the Collage Dance Collective, “Rise” was a multi-generational dance piece set to excerpts of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.”  I can’t say enough good things about it, and the energy in the air was palpable.

During the intermission, my friend and I discussed how, every time we bump up against that speech in particular, it carries a particular resonance.  That effect isn’t just attributable to its prophetic nature, where Dr. King discusses his life and eventual death the day before his assassination.  It’s power comes from the way in which it serves to instill in us the courage needed to make change and to  uplift and inspire at the moments most necessary.  Moments like these.

Dr. King opens with a provocative set-up:

Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”

This is a conversation I’ve often had with friends (albeit, minus the idea that the Almighty would intercede in the time space continuum to drop me where I pleased).  Generally, when we have this discussion, there is a recognition that we are uniquely privileged in both the when and the where of our lives.

But, in the past months, while taking in all of the ways in which our communities are threatened and embattled and measuring up the hard-fought gains in danger of being lost, more than a small measure of despair has crept in.  My optimistic, steely bunch of social justice folks might, after this rough stretch that promises to get only rougher, pause longer on answering “in which age.”

It was in this context that my friend and I listened to King march through defining and exultant moments of progress in history, rejecting each one to instead move closer his own time.  It was out of this frustration that we heard, again, King choose to live in his own time.  And he doesn’t make that choice through rose-colored glasses.  Instead:

Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.

Dr. King — and the dancers so powerfully interpreting his words — reminded me and the rest of the audience that there is a calling to live fully and actively in moments like ours.  That calling sits on each of us to move forward with purpose:

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. . . .

Now let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike, but either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

He celebrates that he was able to be a part of what was happening in the world on a nonviolence, anti-poverty, human rights front.  Today, nearly fifty years later, many (most?  all?) of the same things Dr. King said then could be said again.

If you only do one thing this week, read the entire thing again. Or, better yet, listen to it with your loved ones — American RadioWorks has put the entire audio online here.

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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