The Mountaintop

0400GMT, 4am London time, seconds after the polls close on the West Coast and Hawaii (and not a vote yet reported from any of those reliably blue states) CNN calls Barack Obama the winner. On the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the NAACP, four months past the 232nd birthday of a country whose first fifteen presidents could have owned slaves, forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, an African American is being elected President of the United States.

George Will, conservative columnist and historian from Chicago, just quoted King (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…) in a warm and humble voice.

His quote is from King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. It’s about history:

I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

But I wouldn’t stop there. I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would even go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

But I wouldn’t stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

But I wouldn’t stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” 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. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand 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. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.

I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.

And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the salves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.

After silencing the boos, John McCain gives a concesson speech for the ages. In the end McCain — a man who has given more for his country than any presidential candidate in history — expresses the kind of grace that is the true source of honor: kindness, generosity, modesty, self-sacrifice. Country First, indeed.

He talks about promise. About how Americans never quit. He places a bookend to the history that has passed since King’s speech, given in Memphis the day before being shot dead there. King’s last paragraph begins,

… 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.

And here we are.

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  1. Kevin Barron’s avatar

    Indeed. McCain did give a gracious and noble speech – although, I think he missed one crucial point: this was not just a moment for “his people” (Obama’s). This is a moment for transcending all of the baggage that has mired us in our basest emotions. We can finally hold our heads up in the international community.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Right, Kevin. George Will just said the same thing. Obama was elected by huge majorities among many demographics: young people, new voters, Hispanic… It’s coast-to-coast. And it’s not about Obama’s liberal voting record, but his promise to unite and transcend.

    Man, I just pray he doesn’t get killed. I shouldn’t say that, but having lived through the assassinations forty years ago, and the election of Richard Nixon on this very night that year — with those of us in the anti-war and civil rights movements at the depths of a long trough of despair — I can’t help being concerned.

    King’s dream is coming true. But that dream became a nghtmare for a long time, and so easily.

  3. jonathan peterson’s avatar

    Is it smug to note that the first time Obama mentioned McCain’s name in his speech there was a cheer (if restrained) instead of boos? I’ll call it hopeful instead.

  4. Mary Lu’s avatar

    “And here we are.”

    Hope and Pray it’s so… and for once this country can move forward together.

  5. francine hardaway’s avatar

    Yes, Doc, people our age feel like we do. I just wrote almost the same thing in my own blog. Martin Luther King defined our age, but the tech revolution seems as powerful to me right now as the civil rights revolution.

  6. Lou Josephs’s avatar

    Radio 5 is your all news station in the UK. AM only.
    Jerry Del Coliano is saying that talk radio is going the way of music’s dead. He is probably correct. Now if only we can fix VOA and unwind some of these radio free whatevers and speak with one voice will be fine.

  7. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Francine, the tech revolution also needs to be inclusive, everybody.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lou, I’ve been listening to Radio 5 on 909KHz here. Very good when not talking sports. (For me, at least, being from outside the interest sphere of UK sports.) Too bad it doesn’t stream in a way I can use when I’m not here.

    Not sure which of these transmitters here I’m hearing, but it comes in better than anything else on the band, here in the City of London.

  9. ceedee’s avatar

    “We can finally hold our heads up in the international community.”

    While it’s right to celebrate the selection of a, hopefully, more progressive president, the US still has a way to go before it can be welcomed as a fully civilised nation.
    The rest of the world will be watching closely for progress on key indicators: completely and unequivocally ban the use of torture; end extra-judicial imprisonment and close the black interrogation centres; reverse environmental degradation; halt imperialist adventures where your (or your allies) security is not directly threatened; commence programmes to eradicate child poverty.
    Congratulations on your first steps!

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