I think of it often now; that each step we take could thrust any one of us into the path of history.
I’m not sure Clara Ester was thinking that 50 years ago today, as she went to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to seek out two things: a catfish dinner, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just the night before, King had given his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, and Clara – then as innocent and seemingly immaterial to history as most college juniors – and her friends knew he would be at that motel.
If they knew, then so did many others. Including one James Earl Ray.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is undoubtedly more iconic and, as I noted on our national day of honoring his legacy, is a speech that stands with others that have endured throughout the ages.
But being reminded that it was the Mountaintop speech that preceded his death transformed the goosebumps I predictably get when I listen to an MLK speech – transformed them from being borne solely out of awe, admiration and an awful sense of loss, into something tinged with eeriness.
The prescient quality of the speech, certainly:
“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!”
As Clara Ester noted in her interview, that phrase “I may not get there with you” played on an endless loop as she looked at the fallen King, and in the years since.
But these are the passages from that speech that resonate hauntingly with me in these modern times:
“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 slaves 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. … Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are.”
We’re Americans. We know from history that we can accomplish more banding together, working with one another instead of against. I fear so many of us have forgotten that and in doing so, we enslave ourselves.
King was also known for counseling against violence, but he meant that with words as well as with actions:
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails.”
Words do matter. Especially with social media, they can reach into far-flung corners, impacting people whom we’ve never met, with consequences we may never see – but will surely feel.
I believe the “digital divide” has a meaning beyond access to broadband connectivity.
No, none of us knows when we might step into the path of prominent history, but we are all components of history, nonetheless.
And we can foresee a far superior outcome with more of Martin Luther King’s words of counsel and deeds of kindness, than without:
“We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”