I’ve Been to the Mountain Top Fifty Years Later

April 3, 2018. Fifty years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, I am spending the morning at Manna House.
It is women’s shower day. A small African American woman comes to shower. She was a guest with us many years. She got housing and I had not seen her for a while. Today she tells us she is fresh out of the hospital. She has had another stroke. A hospital ID band is on her wrist. She can barely walk. Her speech is slurred. A volunteer gently helps her select clothes and then guides her into the shower room, steadying her as she walks.
I head out to the front porch. It is an unseasonably warm day. Thunderstorms are in the forecast and strong winds are already starting to blow, much like the weather fifty years ago. An older African American man comes up the steps. He carefully measures each placement of his feet. He makes it into the house. A few minutes later he comes out with a cup of coffee.
“Take my arm. Help me down the steps,” he says to me. “I can’t see so good with this glaucoma.”
I do what he says. With our arms intertwined, we carefully make it down the steps. Then he slowly moves down the street until he is out of sight. He was a new guest. One of the many who arrive today that I do not recognize. There is never a shortage of new people who come, for a cup of coffee, some conversation, a shower, or with greater needs.
“Can I get some underwear and a pair of pants? I’m just out of jail. All I have is these clothes, and they stink.” He, too, is a newcomer. I take him into the clothing room and the volunteers running the showers get him set up.
Another guest arrives. He’s wearing an orthopedic boot. I recognize him as a guest from many years ago who has not been to Manna House in quite some time.
“Mr. Pigues! How are you? Where have you been?” He is a tall slender African American man.
“I’ve been here and there. I got run over by a car. I can’t move so fast and I don’t see so good and drivers don’t care.” He explains that he has no sight in one eye now and the other eye is working at about thirty percent.
Another guest arrives with disturbing but not entirely surprising news. “The police are moving people out of the parks downtown. Squirrel Park and that one where Jefferson Davis used to stand. I got run out because I had a backpack. That’s how they say you’re homeless.”
“The big people are in town for this Martin Luther King thing. They don’t want us to be seen” says another guest.
Given the city leadership’s apparent failure to know anything about Dr. King, I start asking guests, “What does Martin Luther King mean to you?
“He means freedom and equality. As black people we aren’t treated like equals even now. He was killed because he challenged that in America.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
“He was a civil rights pioneer.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children.”
“He means I’m alive. Just to survive as a black man is resistance.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “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.”
“He was a modern-day prophet. He spoke God’s truth that judged this nation and all the wrong it was doing and is doing.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, ‘When God speaks who can but prophesy?’ Again with Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me,’ and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
“I remember people in my church who were upset that he came in here. ‘He’s just causing trouble, stirring things up. People forget now that he wasn’t popular then because they don’t pay attention to what he said.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
“He came to Memphis and lost his life. When they killed him, they brought the National Guard in. I was a little boy. I remember the green trucks and the men with bayonets. It was a troubling time. My Momma said, ‘Stay low. If they can kill Dr. King, they can kill you.’”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “- the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”
“I wasn’t born yet. But I think I miss his personality. I wonder what he would have become. I wonder how he would have stayed in the struggle. We need leaders like him today, with his courage to confront evil.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “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!”

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