Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Mountaintop or the legacy of Martin Luther King

by Kathryn Hadley

‘And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the
threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white
brothers? Well, 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. 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. And I'm happy,
tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have
seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’

Martin Luther King gave his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, the last of his career, at a rally during the sanitation workers’ strike at Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, in Memphis on April 3rd 1968.

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall is on show at the Theatre503 until Saturday. The play is set in room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the evening after King gave his ‘Mountaintop’ address and the night before his assassination. When King calls for room service and orders a coffee, it is brought to his room by Camae, a mysterious maid from the motel. They spend the evening together, talking, smoking and drinking until Camae eventually explains that she is an angel sent by God to prepare King for his death. Is she an angel or merely a vision? Did Martin Luther King have some sort of premonition about his death as his speech at Mason Temple suggests? Has too much importance not instead been given to his words with the hindsight of his death?

The play presents King, above all, as a man. He is not perfect and has his weaknesses; he smokes, he drinks and may have a had ‘a weakness for women’ as Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990), a close associate of King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), stated in his autobiography. Most of all, like all men, King is a frightened man. In the play, he claims that fear is the only thing that unites all men, black and white. He is scared of thunder and lightening; he is scared of death and pain. He does not want to die.

Nevertheless, despite his fears and flaws, King appears a great man and stirs the audience’s compassion. Beyond the fear of death, he refuses to die because he still has so much work to do, so much to accomplish and so much to fight for. His fears and paranoia were also to a large extent justified and understandable.

In 1958, King was stabbed in the chest by Izola Curry whilst signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in a Harlem department store. In 1963, under a directive from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the FBI began wiretapping King’s home and office phones as well as those in his hotel rooms as he travelled across the country. He received numerous death threats throughout his involvement in the civil rights movement and was criticised by many groups, notably by more militant blacks such as Malcolm X (1925-1965). In particular, his opposition to the Vietnam War from 1965 onwards soured his relationship with many members of the mainstream media. His Poor People’s Campaign against issues of economic injustice in 1968 also caused divisions with other leaders of the civil rights movement. Lastly, his flight to Memphis on March 29th, 1968, was delayed by a bomb threat which he notably refers to in his ‘Mountaintop’ address.

King was just a man, as frightened as any other. Today, he is recognised as a martyr by two Christian churches and remembered by most as a great man. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. In 1983, to mark the date of his birth, Ronald Reagan instituted Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday to be observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King’s birthday on January 15th. For the playwright, Katori Hall, Martin Luther King’s legacy largely contributed to the election of America’s first black president at the beginning of the year.

For an insight into how, by adulating King for his work in the civil rights campaigns, we may have ignored some of the equally challenging campaigns of his later years, read our article Martin Luther King’s Half-Forgotten Dream
For further information on King’s involvement with non-violent protest in the USA, read our article We Shall Overcome
For a comparison of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s impact on black culture in the 90s, read our article More Malcolm's Year than Martin's

The Mountaintop
Until July 4th

Theatre503 at The Latchmere503
Battersea Park Road
London SW11 3BW
Telephone: 056 0114 9199

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